Grand Gulch | Grand Canyon

April 2024 delivered perfect weather for our desert canyon adventures. A 4 day loop in the Grand Gulch followed by a 6 day loop off the South rim of the Grand Canyon provided a great transition from skiing to backpacking.

We left Telluride a couple of days after the ski season ended and headed for the Bears Ears. Our itinerary began with a descent down a seldom visited side canyon of the Grand Gulch. The first few miles were relatively straight forward, hiking across the mesa through the pinon/juniper to the head of the canyon system.

From there it got tricky. We had some guide book beta but to find the right entrance from the top was not straight forward. The head of the canyon is complex with multiple fingers, most of which eventually end in impassable pour overs. After backtracking twice, we ultimately found the right one.

Once into the main canyon, it took the rest of the to day reach the confluence with the Grand Gulch. We found a nice place to camp with plenty of water. The next day was spent hiking with light day packs down towards the San Juan river and exploring along the way.

Day 3 we traveled up stream. The Grand Gulch is world renown for its many ancestral puebloan (anasazi) archeological sites. On this day we visited two outstanding examples, attainable only by overnight backpacking.

The first site was a remarkably intact Kiva with the log ladder still in place. It’s a long distance up from the river or down from the rim and hidden from the main stem of the Grand Gulch so this site has seen relatively few visitors. The rungs of the ladder have been removed to ensure the interior remains undamaged by people (when I first visited, the ladder rungs were still in place).

The second site is one that cannot be missed by those who travel the length of the Grand Gulch. Called Shaw Arch on some maps and better known as the Grand Arch, it is almost indescribable. All along the sandstone walls of the arch are red, green and white pictographic hand prints of the people who lived there 1,000 years ago. Underneath the arch are huge rock slabs decorated with petroglyphs and containing multiple grinding dishes along with corresponding “mano” (grinding) stones used by the ancients. It’s a very powerful spot.

On night three we camped a short distance up our exit canyon. We had been down and back up this canyon once before on a day hike and it’s a gem. In the morning we hiked up the canyon and arrived back at the van by noon. A great loop!

Next stop was Page, AZ. There we enjoyed a couple of days in the surrounding Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and Page area. We then rendezvoused with Mr. A for the next backpacking adventure. He is our A+ hiking companion and integral to the next mission: Grand Canyon.

The route we had a backcountry permit for has the following description:

This challenging five day loop is considered by many to be the most difficult of the established south side hikes, appropriate for experienced canyon hikers with basic canyoneering skills. The rappel near the river and the lack of reliable water along the Tonto Trail make this hike significantly more hazardous than other canyon trails. … offers a top drawer canyon adventure, replete with more natural beauty than humans can absorb. For those yet to acquire off trail navigational skills and the ability to rig a rappel anchor, this hike offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.

National Park Service

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon requires more effort and capabilities than many of the other canyon country wilderness areas we visit. The vertical drop from rim to river is more than double that of most canyons. The rock layers can be very steep and sharp, there are long sections without reliable water, and even in mid April it can be very hot. Plus there are rattle snakes! Not to mention that just getting to the trail head was a bit spicy involving off road 4×4 travel.

Nevertheless, we were up for the challenge and stoked for a big adventure in the GC. The first two days involved descending a beautiful canyon to a large natural arch. Along the way, we negotiated bolder jams, bypassed pour-overs, lowered packs, etc. Intermittent water was available along the way. The arch marks the end of what’s passable for most. A couple of 200′ rappel’s are required if continuing down the canyon to it’s end at the river.

On day 3, to avoid those big rappels, we exited the canyon and contoured above the river to a spot that required a more manageable 20′ rappel. Lowering our packs and rappelling down was pretty straight forward. We continued our decent to a nice riverside beach deep in the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon.

After the mornings effort it was a perfect spot for a swim and lunch. We left our packs and spent the afternoon visiting a nearby famous swimming hole located at the mouth of the canyon we had spent the past two days descending.

After our night camped on the beach we got an early start and were hiking upstream above the river by first light. Anticipating the hot day and a dry camp, we each carried 6+ liters of water. That was not too much. We camped in a side canyon above the river and did find a small pot hole of very turbid water. We filtered another couple of liters and were glad to have that, despite the serious hurt it put on our water filters.

Day 5 was a half days hike to the canyon we would climb up and back to the trailhead. We had information that there was some limited water near where we would intersect this canyon. Arriving midday it was too hot to begin the long climb up towards the rim. We spent the rest of the day under a ledge, in the shade, relaxing and filtering more water.

On the final morning we ascended nearly 4,000′ up to the rim and back to our starting point. The hike up followed an historic trial that was pioneered and improved by an intrepid bad ass circa 1880. We left early to avoid the heat and the route out was absolutely remarkable and amazing! A great ending to our grand adventure.

Thanks for reading the report and you can see the Best of Photos here!

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