Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon marks the end of Section 11 and the beginning of Section 12 for those hiking the Hayduke Trail. One a map the mesa itself is a very distinct-looking feature resembling… you guessed it… a horseshoe! It’s a popular destination for backpackers (or even day-hikers) coming down from the South Rim via the Grandview Trail (thus pit toilets are available). It’s also the location of an old miners camp and several prospecting caves. Many relics and ruins from the miners can still be seen, but the caves are now off limits.
Haydukers approach the area from the east by climbing the Tonto Trail up from the Colorado River. Hikers will likely find water when the route crosses Hance Creek. If not, check just a short distance down canyon. This is a fairly popular area for backpackers.
NOTE: for those wishing to explore more, it is possible to walk all the way down Hance Creek to the Colorado — though one will encounter 3 obstacles along the way (all with bypasses).
Continuing past Hance Creek one comes to a trail junction in about 1/2 mile. The Hayduke turns left to climb up to Horsehoe Mesa, but the Tonto Trail continues ahead contouring the west rim of Hance Canyon. This route along the Tonto offers a good alternate to the official route (see below for more details).
Climbing up to Horseshoe Mesa requires some effort — it’s about a 1200′ ascent in just over a mile! After a steady climb to the base of the Red Wall formation, one can see Page Spring (aka Miners Spring) on the opposite wall. A short diversion here is usually good place for a water break, but… in 2018 a rockslide inundated the spring area. TBD if the water source will continue to be reliable.
The next 1/3 mile or so is incredibly steep as the rocky trail ascends quickly through the cliffs before topping out on the seemingly incredibly flat and open Horseshoe Mesa. Haydukers can check out the nearby ruins and/or make use of the primitive pit toilets before heading on the western spur trail leading toward Cottonwood Canyon and down the western side of the mesa. Also — as noted above this is also where the Grandview Trail runs about 4 miles UP to the south rim if in need of a re-supply or other reason to be back in civilization.
The route down into Cottonwood Canyon is also steep, but not quite as rugged as the route on the eastern side. Before too long one will be down beside Cottonwood Creek — another fairly reliable water source and popular area for backpackers.
In about another 1/2 one will come to the junction with the Tonto Trail where Haydukers want to go to the left or westward. This is where hikers would merge back with the Hayduke if they’d taken the alternate around the mesa by staying on the Tonto Trail.
Continuing west along the Tonto one will soon pass another sizable drainage. This area might also have water early in the season, but will likely be dry most of the time.
In about another mile of walking one is looking down on the Inner Canyon and the Colorado River again. Impressive views abound in this area with steep drop-offs of veined schist. Evidently there is an old route here that goes all the way down to the river. This is also the site of a long-ago proposed tram to the bottom of the canyon. What a different place this would be today if that had been developed!
I’ve personally not continued hiking on the section west of here (but my guess is that it’s quite similar until one reaches S. Kaibab Trail.)
Around Horseshoe Alternate
As mentioned above, it’s possible to follow the Tonto Trail around Horseshoe instead of following the Hayduke’s suggested route up and over the mesa. The route around the mesa is actually longer (approx. 4 miles compared to 3 miles), but I bet it’s quicker for most as it’s much easier walking. One must decide: 3 miles with a 1200′ ascent and subsequent descent, or 4 miles of relatively flat walking. The route around the mesa has some good views into Hance Canyon, but otherwise nothing too noteworthy along the way. The route is also easy to lose on the north side of the mesa, but it’s not a problem as the general direction is fairly clear and soon enough the defined trail will appear again. Wanting to check out the miner relics and/or breaking up the monotony of the Tonto Trail are both valid reasons to stay on the Hayduke instead of taking this alternate — it just depends on how much energy one has at that point.