By Sally Underwood
“MAJOR WINTER STORM” was the phrase I saw everywhere, and my kids were rejoicing about school being called off as I watched the Weather Channel and the snow fly outside my window. I knew when I applied for the permit that not being able to get to the trailheads was a risk when planning a hike off the North Rim in the winter, but now I was concerned about even getting out the normally reliable Toroweap road.
The idea for this hike started last April, on a GCFI hike lead by Ken Walters, which spent 10 days between Kanab and Tuckup. As I sat huddled in the shade of a large boulder to escape the sun, looking across at The Dome, I fantasized what it would be like to be here in cooler weather, with water in those dry water pockets instead of being carried on my back. The Dome looked like a fascinating area to explore, and thus was born the idea of coming up here in January.
The original plan was to do a loop, going either in or out of Tuckup, and a shuttle with a local couple was arranged. Today my shuttle driver called to say there was NO WAY he was going out there, and that we were crazy to even try to get to Toroweap. The other women were on their way, flying into Las Vegas and driving from Gallup, so I left my sons and husband all shaking their heads at their crazy mother, and drove to Vegas to pick up Peg and Karen. Of course flights were late, and it was 2:00 AM when we pulled into Fredonia to meet Jana at the motel. We decided to sort our situation out in the morning, and fell into bed.
We were determined to hike SOMEWHERE, even if it meant driving back around to the South Rim. Since we had 4WD vehicles and lots of determination, we decided to try to get out the Toroweap road, and plan to do an “out and back” hike to The Dome.
We left about 9 am and found the road to be a mess, but a frozen mess. The middle part is higher in elevation, and there was about 5 inches of snow in the area where we would have turned off to get to Tuckup. We all agreed that it would have been a mistake to even attempt to get out to Schmutz Springs, as the snow was at least a foot deep as the elevation rose on the rim. We continued down the fault valley, taking one mile at a time and thankful for 4WD. As we dropped in elevation, we lost the clouds and had blue skies and a landscape of snow that sparkled in the bright sun like it was covered with diamonds.
We stopped briefly to talk to the ranger and went to the Toroweap Overlook to celebrate with one of the best views in the canyon. We could see Prospect Valley and Lava Falls far below us, and The Dome and even Mt. Sinyella to the east. Our reward for the weather and road challenges was water galore; beautiful waterpockets in all shapes and sizes, sink-fulls, bathtub-fulls, fishpond-fulls; all overflowing and reflecting a beautiful blue sky. We thanked the Canyon Gods and started down the trail eastward at about 1:00 PM.
The first 3 miles or so is along an old road, and Karen showed us a pictograph under an overhang that she had visited on a prior service trip with a park archeologist. As the road ended, we picked up the trail and actually followed it fairly easily to Burro Canyon. Burro Springs was flowing, but by the small amount of water in the drainage, would not be reliable. There was evidence of trail construction down to the spring however, so it must have been used for the cattle that were historically allowed to graze on the Esplanade. We stopped to camp about 5:00 PM on the east side of the drainage running grid north/south that becomes Cove Canyon, and enjoyed a wonderful view both east and west as the setting sun highlighted the geological layers on Big Point and turned the sky pink, orange, and gold. With warm sleeping bags and tents, we all slept well that night.
We woke to frost on the insides and outsides of the tent flies this morning, but the waterpockets only had a thin skin of ice on them as we dipped our cups in for water. As we rounded Big Point Canyon and headed back south west, we were rewarded with fabulous views of Vulcan’s Throne covered with snow, as well as the cinder cones flanking the mesa to the west of Mohawk Canyon across the river. We were amazed by the shades of green created by the vegetation here—scrub oak, juniper, pinyon pine, sandpaper bush, yucca, bear grass, agave, many varieties of prickly pear, and a myriad of grasses. The storm had washed everything clean, and the air was so clear that everything had a sharp clarity to it.
I was reminded of the first time I had seen the diminutive agave that are common in the western Grand Canyon—I had thought them to be a different species than the robust Utah agave seen in the central section. I later learned that they are a subspecies, Agave utahensis var. kaibabensis (although the reference Arizona Flora does list them as a separate species altogether). They are none-the-less as sharp-spined as their cousins to the east, and are unfortunately about shin height, as Jana was to find out later on the trip. I decided to climb up on top of the Hermit Shale mesa extending southwest from Big Point and take a look around. What a beautiful view! Realizing how big the area was, I decided to go back down rather than separate myself from the others, but found myself cliffed out unless I backtracked quite a ways. Peg and Karen came to my rescue, helping me lower my pack off the cliff face and freeing me to find a safer way down sans pack. We decided to scout for a break on the other side as we passed, and try to do an “up and over” shortcut on our return hike.
Days in winter are short anyway, but ours seemed to fly by as we enjoyed every nuance in the color and texture of the beautiful Esplanade Sandstone. For Grand Canyon geology novices, the Esplanade is the uppermost member of the Supai Group, and in the western Grand Canyon, forms a bench-like plateau much like the Tonto Plateau elsewhere. The Tonto is nonexistent here as river level is at the Muav Limestone. The Esplanade is made up of predominantly reddish pink windblown sandstone the color of cooked salmon, with some layers of gray and light gold thrown in for interest. This cliff forming layer provides a base on which the Hermit Shale erodes back to the base of the tan Coconino Sandstone. The shale is the color of the ristas of Mexican chiles that are everywhere in the Southwest in the fall—a beautiful shade of red. The sandstone erodes much like the slickrock found in Utah into whimsical shapes, and we enjoyed giving the rocks form, much like watching clouds in the summer.
The sandstone also erodes to provide waterpockets, which were indeed a blessing. We hardly ever carried more than a couple of liters of water at a time—far less than the 2 or 3 gallons required on the hike last April. Although they decreased in size and number as the week went on, they were still more than adequate to provide all our water needs the entire hike. Given the extra weight of winter gear, we were so lucky to have them. We spent our second night just south of the short side arm of Stairway Canyon (the drainage that provides access to the main arm of Stairway and the river).
Jana’s birthday! What a great place to spend it. By then we were all in love with the Esplanade, and were having a wonderful time following the little game trails at the edge of the main sandstone bench. Cattle, deer, and sheep have one thing in common—they don’t really like to walk on slickrock if they can help it, so the game trails are frequently in the softer shale just at the edge of the sandstone. The trails are especially distinct as they cross the soft “mud slopes”, and we almost never were without a trail under foot. They didn’t necessarily go where we wanted to go, however, a fact we realized later as we contoured our merry way AROUND Stairway Canyon and southward onto more vast Esplanade bench. OOPS! We should have continued straight north, up and over a small saddle. Oh well-we got to see an amazing flock of pinyon jays on our little detour. There must have been hundreds of birds, calling to each other and filling the sky with gray-blue. Since they only flock like this in the winter, this was a real treat, and made us feel better about our navigational “learning opportunity.”
Willow Springs had a good flow, and we picked up water more from sheer habit than from need. We stopped for the night between Willow and Fern Glen Canyon, amid water pockets that we nicknamed “the Great Lakes.” We celebrated Jana’s birthday with Twinkies complete with candles, and all agreed how lucky we were to be there.
The night had been clear and cold, and there was more ice on the waterpockets this morning than previously. We had been awaking to a waning early morning moon, getting progressively smaller and more easterly as the trip went on. I love getting immersed in the natural rhythms of the canyon, how they become synchronized with your own. Most people wake up every morning with no clue where the moon is or what phase it is in—another canyon blessing to enjoy.
Going around Fern Glen Canyon, we noticed a wall of rocks that were obviously intentionally placed. We surmised that they were put there to prevent cows from going across, as the wall made for a kind of “gate.” It was a quick hike over to The Dome, which we had watched from every angle and every light for the past 3 days. Now we were here! We had seen many areas of lithic scatter (worked chert fragments) all along our hike, and Karen found two nice points in the area north of The Dome (and of course, replaced them where they were found). Now that it was “up close and personal”, we marveled that anyone had ever climbed it at all. It looked like a shear tan wall of Coconino and Toroweap, and getting through the Hermit wouldn’t be easy either, as it is much thicker and more substantial in the western GC than elsewhere. I suspect that it would take some aide climbing to summit. Hats off to those that have done so!
We found a great campsite just north of The Dome that we would call home for the next two nights. After lunch and some putzing around, we headed down to find Dome Springs. We found the cowboy camp, and enjoyed the scramble down the water-shaped sandstone to the spring, which was flowing about 2 gallons a minute. We found a route down to the top of the Redwall, and noticed trail construction and another rock “gate”, presumably used to prevent cattle from going down. Peg found some very old looking cow manure under a nearby overhang, and we were all glad they were not around now.
We had decided earlier to also try to find Dome Pocket, so we reluctantly left the route down to some other day, and went back up to the top of the Esplanade. There were so many water pockets, and they were all so full of water that it was hard to tell for sure which one was Dome Pocket, but we found a hot-tub-sized one in the right place that we decided must be it. We got terrific views up and across the Tuckup drainage, and Peg and I remembered when we were over there, looking over here. We also had views of Sinyella framed by the late evening canyon light, and I was reminded how many times I had seen it while taking friends, family, and classes down to Havasu. It was so neat to see it from over here.
Last night was our coldest yet, and the ice was an inch thick on the water pockets. Our water bottles kept freezing shut while we prepared breakfast, till I remembered the trick of turning them upside down to keep that from happening. Didn’t help with the frozen toothpaste or contact lenses, though. We all got a good laugh at our undies, which we had washed the night before—they were frozen stiff and could stand up by themselves. Well, it was a sunny day, and they would have plenty of time to dry while we explored down the little drainage south of The Dome.
Another beautiful little side canyon with fun obstacles to climb over, under, and around, but we found no spring as reported by others. Guess two years of drought has taken its toll. Again, there was evidence of a “cow-stopping wall” and some trail construction on the route down to the Redwall. Of note to geology buffs—the “top of the Redwall” is actually described by George Billingsley as an integrated system of erosional channels. These deposits were later studied and named the Surprise Canyon formation by Stan Beus. The map we used for this hike, Geology of Vulcan’s Throne and Vicinity, Western Grand Canyon, shows the old nomenclature, as the mapping was done between 1971 and 1982.We hiked west towards Fern Glen Canyon, enjoying views of the river and National Canyon.
Karen had planned a river trip for May of this year, and we reminded her to look up when she got to National, and tell everyone “she was up there” just last January. Because we had planned to circumnavigate The Dome this afternoon, our turn-around time prevented us from getting all the way to Fern Glen Canyon—another reason to come back here again! We enjoyed our hike all the way around, though, seeing the Dome from every angle, and Jana reported seeing a peregrine falcon swooping over the edge of the Esplanade. It was breezy this afternoon, and we joked as we picked up water that the “Great Lakes” had whitecaps on them. We would have loved to spend more time in this area and also in Tuckup, but “rim-life” and airline reservations demanded that this be our last night by The Dome. Nature once again provided us with a spectacular sunset, and dry laundry in which to hike back. Life is good.
It was actually fun to retrace our steps on the way back the same way. Far from being boring, we got to see things from the other direction, and the recognition of landmarks was like running into to old friends. We knew that we would likely make better time on the way back, so our pace was more leisurely and our packs felt much lighter. We were at Willow Springs about lunchtime, and although it was in the sun, the water was running under a layer of ice.
We found more lithics and potsherds on the way towards Stairway, mostly in the shade of big boulders where their shadows would provide relief from the sun (been there, done that last April!) We also found another deflated Mylar balloon to add to the one found earlier—seems I always find one of those darn things! An unwanted reminder of the civilization we must return to soon. We stopped early this afternoon to set up camp, as streaky cirrus clouds turned from gold to pink to purple in the fading light.
We decided to take a detour up and over the little plateau extending southwest from Big Point and found a terrific sheep trail going up the obvious break. There were lots of deer and sheep tracks up there, and Karen, as usual, found worked chert pieces as we stopped to dry out our sleeping bags in the sun and enjoy the view.
As we got back down on the usual level for the trail, we realized that crinoids were the predominant fossil type we had seen all week. Big ones, small ones, long strings of them—they were a successful species in the late Permian when the Kaibab limestone was deposited, then to erode and roll down to the Esplanade at our feet. I would swear that little seedlings had sprouted in the few days since we had passed this way, and they gave me hope for a good wildflower season this spring. We had seen a couple of very cold looking paintbrush and dogwood blooming, but other than turpentine broom, that was all.
The afternoon brought cloudier skies, especially to the east, and formed a purple backdrop for Big Point in the warm afternoon light. We discussed our exit strategy for tomorrow, deciding to try to drive back out the road but prepared, if we had to, to wait till Sunday morning when it would be frozen. I had extra food and fuel in the car, but a hot shower was starting to sound awfully good. We made camp just west of our first night’s site, past another cowboy camp under an overhang and beneath a huge hunk of sandstone that we decided looked like a yawning hippo. Soon we were yawning too and called it a night. I don’t think I have ever gotten this much sleep in a week in my life!
We woke to just a sliver of silver moon, the rest of it visible from “earthshine.” We decided to take a detour and go high as we contoured around Big Cove Canyon, and before we knew it, we were back at the road and our final walk to the vehicles. We had all grown so fond of the Esplanade, so fond of each other’s company, and so fond of the very simple backpacking life, it was bittersweet to round the corner and see the windshields reflecting in the sunlight. After celebratory cookies thoughtfully provided by Jana, we hopped in and kept our fingers crossed that we would be able to get back out the road. It was like driving in deep chocolate pudding most of the way, and I was once again thankful for 4WD, but we made it back to Fredonia, hot showers, and dinner at Nedras. It had been a wonderful week.
We probably had temperatures in the lower 20’s at night, and 30’s and 40’s during the day. Since we stayed up on the Esplanade, we were at about 4200′ elevation most of the time. Although I normally don’t take a tent, the extra weight was worth the extra warmth and safety net had the weather turned ugly. I was also very glad to have taken a Ridge-Rest in addition to a Therm-a-Rest . . . the extra insulation was well worth the weight, and it was great to sit on at dinner. Karen had brought down booties, we which all coveted by the end of the trip. I had not brought any extra footwear, thinking sandals would be too cold anyway, but booties would have been wonderful. We never had difficulty in following the “trail”, but are experienced in off-trail hiking and route-finding. This is a very remote area without much water, and gets miserably hot in the summer as it is all south-facing. It is not a route for a novice hiker. Even in winter, waterpockets cannot be relied upon, so do your homework and be prepared to carry a lot of water. I had rented a satellite cell phone from PRO in Flagstaff, and although we never used it, it was nice to have as an emergency communication device. I meant to test it out, but forgot, so can’t comment on how it actually worked.
My thanks go to the other Esplanade Sisters—Karen Greig, Jana Gunnell, and Peg Guthrie. Can’t wait to do it again!