Grand Canyon: Fishtail Mesa

Below is the “daily journal” account from my 10-day, 89-mile backcountry hike around Fishtail Mesa in the Grand Canyon.

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I left pavement early in the afternoon near Colorado City. I made good time along the gravel road heading toward Toroweep. Once I branched off on the road to Kanab Point the road deteriorated some, but was still pretty good. Farther along more side roads branched off until my road was so small I couldn’t tell what was the “main” road anymore. After following several spurs to dead-ends I had to break out the GPS and it helped navigate through the maze of junipers to the canyon’s edge. The first view of the Canyon is always so breathtaking — somehow one forgets just how grand it really is.

I followed the rim to the peninsula and the out to Kanab Point. I hadn’t seen another vehicle since turning off the main road and I had this awesome spot all to my own. I drove right out to the point and camped about 10 feet from the edge of the canyon and had an incredible 270-degree view as the sun went down. Directly to the east of me was Fishtail Mesa — the enormous outcropping which I will be circumnavigating on my 8-day trek. I could also see the Colorado River following past me almost 4000 feet directly below.

view from tent at Kanab Pt.

Day 1: I got up early to see the sun rise over the canyon’s North rim. After a quick extra snooze, I got up and got ready to go. Unfortunately, there was a problem with my SAT phone. Since it failed to connect and I had not given the official “good-byes and trip itinerary” to my parents or my girlfriend, I had to drive all the way back to the nearest city. Task complete, but I would be going w/o communication to the outside world for the first time on any of my big hikes! My original plan was to route-find my way off the edge of the canyon north of Kanab Point. However, now I had no desire to drive all the way back through the maze of side roads not knowing for sure there was a viable route down. Thus, I decided to drive to the Hack Canyon route. It’s would mean a longer hike, but it should be easier and is a shorter drive back.

After another tedious drive including many erroneous spurs, I finally arrived at the trailhead on the rim of Hack Canyon. Trailhead is somewhat a misnomer as it’s only an unofficial route so there is no real marker — or real trail for that matter.

After an hour or so of final packing, I was finally ready to set off into the canyon. All the delays cost me over half of the day. Now, the wind was blowing incredibly hard. I don’t think I have ever experienced such a sustained, hard wind. As I dropped over the canyon’s edge I found the unofficial route. It was small and dropped quickly, but fairly easy to follow. I cached some water about 1/2 way down the steep cliffs.

I got below the cliffs and the terrain sloped gently the rest of the way down — by this point it was already after 7pm. Soon I noticed the near-full moon rising over the canyon’s rim to the east. It was an incredible sight. About this same time a noticed some animals ahead of me in the distance. As I got closer I realized they were 3 burros and 2 mustangs. They were surprised to see me, but didn’t scatter and I steered clear as I headed down the canyon. Not too much farther I decided to stop for the night — not nearly as far as I hoped to get on day one.

The bright Moon flooded the canyon with light that evening. Around midnight I got up to take it all in and it was an amazing sight as once your eyes adjusted it was as if it was midday — with stars in the sky! I took some long-exposure shots with my camera to capture the view.

Day 2
Wild horses* woke me up a couple of times during the middle of the night. Their neighing sounded as if it was right outside my tent– but the wilderness always has a way of doing that so I was not alarmed. As I broke camp I noticed the horses on a nearby hillside. There were about 16 or so grazing on the sparse vegetation. As I left camp I was able to get closer — within 20 feet or so at one time. They were aware of me, but were not too afraid. When one began to prance around a bit I knew I was as close as I should get. A little ways further down the canyon I came across another pair — this time is was a mare with her foal. She didn’t let me get nearly as close before she nudged her baby in the opposite direction and quickly trotted away.

*note: since this trip I’ve been informed that the “wild” horses I encountered were most likely dude/ranch horses there for the winter season.

Over the course of the next few hours I made my way down the cobbled-stone streambed of Hack Canyon. As I went the lower part of the canyon began to close in a bit with nicely rounded red walls. At almost noon I hit the confluence of Kanab Creek. It too was not much more than a flow of round rocks — though I was surprised to see a few small, murky waterholes. I chose not to drink anything as I knew there should be better water ahead. Sure enough a few hours later out of nowhere a small trickle began to flow. Not much farther it was a full-fledged creek. Here I got out of the sun for a while and took a midday break for lunch. Temperatures were warm, but not terrible.

Soon I ran into the first people I had seen since leaving the highway the day before. It was a fairly large group of 10 people or so and just as I was about to say ‘hello’ there was another group catching up from behind. I quickly learned that it was a class from Northern Arizona University. They were all on a two-day loop hike around the mesa we stood below (not Fishtail). The two groups were hiking in opposite directions and I just happened to catch them at their halfway point where they would meet and camp. Imagine that — getting class credit for taking a hike! After a little small talk I was on my way leaving the two groups to merge.

Within another hour the canyon walls began to really narrow as I began to enter the limestone narrows of Kanab Canyon. Soon I could no longer see the cliffs of the upper canyon as the inner canyon’s sheer walls rose several hundred feet in near-vertical fashion. It was in this section that once again the water dried up and I was left walking along the rocky streambed.

Another hour or so down canyon I was happy to see some puddles of water. Though it wasn’t that late in the day, I decided to make camp. I was approaching the National Park Boundary and the tight narrows of Jumpup Canyon. I could have hiked another hour or two, but camping is not allowed within the upcoming section and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to power through the narrows (or the desire to hurry this cool section.)

I camped on the bank on a sand flat surrounded by prickly pear cactus. The junction of Jumpup Canyon and the NPS boundary was just around the bend ahead. I was happy I stopped — my body was beat!

Day 3
The daylight sifting down through the canyon in the morning was beautiful. I pumped some water and got going as I had a lot of ground to cover today.

Almost immediately I was at the confluence of Jumpup Canyon. Its near-vertical walls rose several hundred feet — though at its base the canyon is not more than 20-feet wide. I started up the canyon and travel was difficult as it was a continuous stream of melon-shaped rocks. At one point I nearly fell as the rock under my left foot gave way — but with a quick balance check I caught myself with my other leg. Unfortunately I tweaked my leg in the process. I heard a pop, but was happy that it didn’t really hurt and that I didn’t fall face-first onto the rocks.

The next several miles were really amazing. The canyon remained tight-walled with very little direct sunlight making its way to the bottom of the canyon. No getting lost here as there was only one route one could travel until I came to the junction of Indian Hollow. I thought about taking this route up to the North Rim, but I’d read that it involves a few climbs which could be tricky for the solo backpacker. So, instead, I will go the longer route and continue up Jumpup Canyon.

After another set of narrows the walls began to shorten, and then widen, until once again I could see the towering cliffs of the upper canyon. Not long after this point I came to the junction of Kwagunt Canyon. I’d read that this canyon is not as difficult as the Indian Hollow so I decided to give it a go. I knew that if it too proved too difficult I could retrace my steps and take the next canyon which is definitely hikeable (but a much longer route.)

Not too far up Kwagunt Canyon I came across pools of crystal clear water. Then a little farther up the water began to flow. Not much farther I came to a series of waterfalls. Author Kelsey calls these the “trickle falls” as there is just enough water going over each to make for a nice cool-down in the afternoon heat. Each of these falls is about 30-40 feet tall and can be fairly easily bypassed on the south side of the canyon. Just a bit farther up is a smaller cascade which almost looks climbable, but I chose to seek out another way. I found a route just to the left of the cascade which could be climbed. It was about 15′ of bag-lifting and climbing up, but not too bad.

A little bit farther up I disturbed an unseen animal hiding nearby. Its sudden, deep-throated cackles nearly scared me to death. As I froze in my tracks trying to get a glimpse of the beast, it too stopped and remained hidden from sight. My guess was that it was a turkey and as I inched forward again it started squawking again — this time sounding more high-pitched. I stopped again and so did it. I looked for another route, but there was none– I would need to go straight ahead and past the assumed hiding spot of the creature. As I began once more a sound from another beast began — this time directly behind me. It was as if all of a sudden I was surrounded. Nervously I moved forward and as I got right next to where the original sound emanated… nothing happened. My mood quickly changed from one of fear to that of somewhat disappointment as I continued to move on I realized the mystery wouldn’t be solved via visual confirmation.

UPDATE: I later learned that the monstrous sounds were from TINY frogs. I would later see several of the culprits and learned their sounds are often mistaken for everything from turkeys to goats.

Late in the afternoon I had a decision to make. I needed to decide if I would continue up the canyon and hookup with a trail that would take me to the canyon’s rim, or, if I should contour around on the plateau traveling cross-country to where the aforementioned trail descends the other side. I decided for the later as at this point I didn’t have the energy for the ascent to the rim and I was optimistic I could make up time on the contour despite the lack of a formal trail.

As I climbed out of the now-shallow Kwagunt Canyon I stumbled across some great pictographs. There were several panels in this side canyon which I have never read about in any of my guide books. It was a very cool discovery.

I made my way about a mile to the south when I came across the place I knew I had to camp. Though I probably had another hour of daylight, there I stood on this incredible sandstone shelf which overlooked the lower canyon. The shelf was graced with these enormous sandstone marbles — each standing about 15′ tall. It was a great place to stop, so I made camp, had a great meal and relaxed my leg which was somewhat sore from the stumble early in the day.

Day 4
Headed out fairly early in the morning and continued on the contour towards Fishtail Mesa. The saddle connecting it to the canyon’s north rim is where I would cross to access the canyons to the east.

First though I would need to go a little bit out of the way to Indian Spring to fill up on water. I could see the spring in the distance as a dot of green vegetation in the otherwise scrubby brown landscape. As I got close I was happy to see the spring actually gave enough water to flow down the shallow drainage as a creek so I didn’t have to go as far out of my way as I had feared. As I sat down to pump my water I spotted more pictographs on the nearby walls. Closer inspection revealed even more on the backside of the wall. I guess this is why it’s called Indian Spring.

From here I made my way over to Indian Hollow — many miles upstream from the junction I passed the day before. I walked along the rim a ways before I found I spot I could descend. The way down was rocky and covered with several types of cacti, but in no time at all I was down into the dry streambed. As I escaped the hot sun for a while I could see the saddle I would cross not too much farther ahead.

Back out in the hot sun it was a slow go up the sandy streambed. Within an hour or so I was close enough to begin the ascent up and over the saddle which rose about 1400′ about my position. There was no official trail here, but I was hoping to spot an unofficial ‘use’ trail or maybe a game trail of some sort. With no such luck I picked the best route up I could find — hopping the smallest of boulders with a direct route up and into the shade. The way up was a LOT of work as it was a continuously one boulder after another and every 5 minutes I would have to make a course correction to bypass some obstacle. After almost an hour of climbing I was nearing the top. Here I found an informal trail I had hoped to find down below. This made the final push to the top much easier.

Once on top I sat down on a few big slabs of rock which straddled the saddle. Behind me to the west was the canyon system which I had just come up, the area I camped a bit farther up and in the distance the shadows of Hack Canyon where I began 3 days ago. But, as incredible as that view was, the real show-stopper was ahead where the other side of the saddle fell quickly away in near-sheer drop and opened up on the great expanse of the eastern flanks of Fishtail Mesa and the central section of the Grand Canyon which until now had been completely hidden from view. I took a while to relax and take it all in.

Knowing I still had a long ways to go I began my decent. I was curious to see how the informal trail would descend this side of the saddle which from this vantage looked like a sheer drop in every direction. The trail followed the contour of the cliff and quickly dissipated into no more than a 12-inch path which traversed a 35-degree slopping hill of rock before plunging about 800 feet down in a sheer drop. This crossing was about 200 yards in length and I could see the thin trail leading to a pile of rubble in the distance which I assumed had to hide the route down this escarpment. I surmised that the trail, though extremely scary, was safe despite the fact that one stumble here would be certain death. With a deep breath I instantly started walking making sure to make every step count and ensure it was firmly planted on solid ground before taking the next step. Though my pack ominously began to feel heavier and heavier, I continued with each solid step one after another because I knew if I stopped to think about the situation more I would only psyche myself out. Within about a minute I was across the traverse and was soo incredibly happy to be atop several huge boulders on seemingly solid ground once again. What I had just crossed was the scariest 100 yards I had ever done with a full pack*.

After I caught my breath I realized I wasn’t completely done yet. The trail had disappeared at this point, but now a series of cairns marked the way down the rockfalls which filled the void beneath me. The rockfall was about 20 feet wide and consisted of rocks from the size of bricks to those the size of refrigerators. I slowly picked my route down making sure to test the stability of each rock before stepping to the next one below. It was a long, tedious process and by the time I got the the bottom the Sun was already low in the sky. It was so nice to truly be back down on solid ground though.

*NOTE: at the time the Fishtail crossing and descent was very scary to me. I’ve since done much more “off trail” hiking and have learned to trust my feet. So, another’s experience at this location will definitely depend on their… well… experience. 🙂

With no sign of a trail whatsoever, I picked the best route I could find and continued contouring around the numerous side-canyons. One canyon — the upper reaches of Fishtail Canyon — had fingers which reached up almost to the base of the upper canyon’s walls. This required a long, meandering route up, down and around numerous ravines to get to its far side. Exhausted, I decided to quit for the day and make camp. I hoped to recuperate and make up time tomorrow and possibly seek out a nearby spring to replenish my water which was running low after the arduous saddle crossing.

Day 5
Woke up tired. The adventure the day before really knocked the energy out of me. The map showed a spring about a mile from my camp,but despite being low on water I decided to not seek it out as it was out of the way and such seeps can be tough to find. So instead, I decided to conserve time and head out.

I made my way across the Esplanade rock formation. This is much more tedious than one would think by looking at the map as one constantly has to make course corrections to account for changes in topography. The best section allowed me to rim walk along huge stretch of red rock escarpments. I ran into a group of people– it was the first people I had seen in three days.

The day was hot. By midday I was stopping frequently in the what little shade there was to not get overheated and conserve water — which by this point was down to 20 ounces. I decided to let myself only have one drink every half hour. I estimated that this would get me about 5hrs down the trail and hopefully to my next source of water.

Not too much farther my route intersected the Thunder River trail. It was nice to be back on an actual trail — it both quickened the pace and gave me a sense of security for some reason.

The next section of the trail was still really hot, but very enjoyable as it meandered through the scenic red-rock formations. The views were incredibly expansive.

Late in the afternoon I came to the overlook of Surprise Valley. It was an amazing view as the rock cliffs dropped over 1000 feet to the valley before before dropping again to the Colorado River seen in the distance. To celebrate I decided to open up my emergency reserve of water — it was 6 ounces and I drank half of it right then and there!

Just before I began to descend off the rim — I ran into two couples setting up camp for the night. They were a friendly group and even offered water when they learned I was running low. I refused knowing I could make it to Thunder River below and didn’t want to take from their stash.

The big descent was incredible. I quickly dropped a lot of elevation as the trail switched back and forth climbing down between a series of rockfalls. The evening sun was still incredibly warm and I was out of water before getting to the bottom.

At the bottom the trail splits with one direction going to Thunder River and the other going to Deer Creek. I dropped my gear and headed out to Thunder River with some water bottles. The mile-long slight incline was too incredibly difficult. It’s a terrible feeling to be completely out of water and be soooooo thirsty. Even though I knew I would be to water in about a 1/2 an hour, it was torture. When I got to the rim I could finally see Thunder Springs gushing out of the side of the wall. It was a beautiful sight — not only for its natural beauty but also because of the validation that water wasn’t that far away.

After navigating the series of steep switchbacks I was at the point I could access the creek. It’s incredible how much water pours out of the side of the wall at this point. It’s so amazing that so much of the Grand Canyon is bone dry and then there are places like this where water is gushing and allows for a perennial jungle of sorts. I quickly drank almost a full liter of water. It tasted sooooo good– no filter necessary! I relaxed a bit and watched the golden hour of the Sun, then I bottled up some water and headed back the way I came.

The hike back to my gear was much easier after being rejuvenated with the water. All the same it was beginning to get dark so I found the closest place I could set up camp and settled in for the night.

Day 6
In the morning I made the short hike across Surprise Valley and began the drop into Deer Creek Canyon. On the way I ran into two groups of people headed up and out. As the trail got close to the main drainage, it made a precarious descent down the edge of a cliff. Soon I could hear rushing water and knew I must be getting close to Deer Creek Springs. Sure enough, after a few more switchbacks I could see the springs erupting as a waterfall out if a crack in the wall. There wasn’t as much water as Thunder Springs, but it was still an impressive sight.

As I continued to down to the main creek I ran into some day-hikers coming up. And then some more. And some more. Turned out it was a group of people on a rafting expedition and they were coming up from the Colorado River. By this point I had seen more people in half a day than I had in the last 5 on the trail.

Down at the creek I followed the ample flow down to where it entered Deer Creek Narrows. This was an amazing place where the crystal clear water cascades through the tight, winding striped sandstone walls. The trail follows a ledge above the narrows and one point it was actually too narrow to pass with my big pack straight on. It was a short gut-check moment where I had to turn sideways and sidestep a few times hugging the cliff as my pack protruded out over the 100′ abyss. Day hikers could easily stoop below an overhang which was more protected.

Not much farther the narrows give way and I found myself overlooking the mighty Colorado from a vantage point a few hundred feet above the river. Up canyon I could see Granite Gorge — the narrowest portion of the inner canyon. Directly below I saw the big yellow rafts which had transported all the people I had run into earlier. Some of these people now caught back up with me as I took in the great view. I could also hear Deer Creek Falls below me — but it was out of sight from this point.

As I descended the trail to the beach below, my leg was really beginning to hurt. The twist from Day 2 plus the nonstop descent of the last two days had really taken a toll. One of the rafters who caught up with me said she had an extra brace and offered it to me. She also said there was a medic with their group who could check out my leg — which I noticed was now slightly swollen.

Down at the rafts the leader offered me a drink. Though tempting, I passed on the beer and opted for a Dr. Pepper for the caffeine!

Unfortunately the woman’s brace was too small for me. However, the medic said that she thought my knee was ok — just a strain. Unfortunately her advice was to just ‘take it easy’. That’s easier said than done when one is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, 40 miles from his car and behind schedule!

Several of the rafters were curious to hear about my hike so far and impressed that I would travel down canyon on foot. Two from the group had done it before and said it was a difficult hike. They asked if I had route details as several times I would need to climb above the river to pass cliffs. This I didn’t have. I was optimistic I could scout it out, though their concern worried me a bit!

For the next several hours I hung out at the base of Deer Creek Falls. It was a great oasis to escape the heat of the day. The water shooting out of the narrows high above drops about 100′ and in the process creates a continuous strong gust of cold wind — nature’s own air conditioning! I wished the rafters well as they launched and had my lunch before deciding to continue down the canyon myself.

It was an amazing feeling to be walking alongside the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. For a ways I could easily walk on the sandy beach as the river alternated between rapids and calm stretches. Occasionally I would have to make my way up and over talus of loose rocks, but each time I could quickly return to the next beach down the river.

It was now about 3pm and the Sun was baking the bottom of the canyon. I decided I should take it easy in the shade for a while so I took a little nap. While relaxing I noticed a California Condor soaring above. After about an hour or so I was again on the move.

Soon I came to my first band of cliffs. As the beach got pinched more and more it looked for sure as if I would have to find a way to climb above. But, fortunately there remained 2-3 feet of bedrock and sand which separated the cliffs from the river.

A little farther down I could tell I wasn’t going to be so lucky. In the distance I could see the next cliffs and the river hitting right up against their sheer walls as it made the lazy bend. I had spotted a seemingly random cairn not too far back — so I decided to begin climbing for higher ground. I made my way up a ravine and stumbled right upon a fairly well worn trail which traversed high above on the ledges above the river.

As the Sun was beginning to get low on the horizon I noticed that the cliffs had begun to ease and soon it would be possible to get back down to the river. Ahead I could see a nice sandy beach near a set of rapids. I decided that would be my home for the night. I was at the mouth of Cranberry Canyon — just up from Fishtail Canyon.

Day 7
After camp was packed up I headed down the canyon. Once again there was no real trail and it was a repetitive cycle of deep patches of sand along the beach and then up and over piles of boulders. In several stretches one has the option of which route to take and thus there is a never-ending internal debate about which is the path of least resistance: “I really think we should take the high route here.” Minutes later: “I told you these rocks weren’t stable, we should have taken the lower route.” Next time: “This sand it too deep — we should take the high route next time.” It really was an arduous process.

At one point making may way through cascading boulders I tripped and fell fairly hard on my side. My $10 pair of sunglasses came through unscathed, but unfortunately my GPS did not — it had a huge crack right down the middle of the display screen and refused to power on. Bummer. Oh well — it’s not like I could get lost here as there is really only one way to go. But, I would miss the motivational stats from the device.

Soon I passed Fishtail Rapids. These were probably the biggest rapids I had seen so far. The river rolled in a series of huge waves turning the water upside down several times over the stretch of 200 yards or so. It was incredible to be eye-level with the rapids and so close — it also gave me a sense of vertigo as the whole world around me seemed to be moving.

Continuing down canyon I went. Up and down, up and down. Tedious, hot, slow and sore — that was the theme of the day.

A few rafters passed me in the middle of the afternoon. I waved to them from my shady spot under a tree on the river bank. “What are you doing?” they called out. “Hiking down the river,” I replied. “We’re drinking beer!” they chimed back as they all raised a toast and floated on past. Indeed — a whole ‘nother way to see the canyon.

As I neared the the junction of Kanab Creek late in the day, the river slowed down and began to form an estuary. The water was as smooth as glass, quiet for the first time, for the next 1/2 mile or so. Cliffs blocked the low route once again, but there seemed to be a small path along the edge. Soon, this small path disappeared into the river. Not wanting to turn back, I noticed the path continuing about 20′ down river. So, I took off my shoes and pack and jumped in the river. Sure enough it was only up to my waist. I slowly transported my gear through the water and to the continuation of the trail. Once geared back up I continued down canyon once again. Not more than 400 yards farther, I was once again cliffed out and this time there didn’t appear to be any way around. I would have to turn around, go back through the water and a ways back up-canyon to climb high above of the cliffs. 🙁

By the time I did all this it was getting dark. Though I had hopped to make it to at least the junction of the Kanab Creek, it was just getting too tricky on the upper ledges so I found the widest spot I could and made camp for the night.

Day 8
I got up as early as I could and started down the river. Now with full daylight I could see the junction of Kanab Canyon just at the bend not too far ahead.

I had hoped to be back to the Jeep this evening, but I knew that would be too daunting of a task. But, I was hoping with a hard day of hiking I’d be able to get most of the way up Kanab Creek and not leave too much for the next day.

Within 20 minutes I was overlooking Kanab Rapids and the mouth of Kanab Creek. The walls here tower hundreds of feet in a sheer vertical ascent.

There was a good flow of water coming down the lower reaches of Kanab. Some had mentioned there may be some holes where swimming would be required, but if the early going was going to be any indication it was more of trekking through ankle deep water. There was a dread in the back of mind of confronting something extremely difficult; If I had to turn around at this point — it was unthinkable and not an option!

It was a cool sensation to follow the meanders of the canyon. Seldom was the canyon wide enough to the see the upper canyon’s walls — but with the shifting direction of the early morning sun I definitely go the sense of meandering along like a lazy river.

Farther up canyon the water got deeper, but still no more than knee-deep at the deepest of crossings. I began to see quite a few medium-sized fish as well — so the water must have provided a fairly permanent habitat. There were plenty of deeper pools too. Never blocking the path, but always easily accessible making it convenient for me to take a plunge and cool down in the now hot midday sun. I found several pools which were over my head!

Still farther up canyon the route finding became more of a challenge. Huge rockfalls with boulders the size of a van blocked the path 2 or 3 times making travel up-canyon difficult. There was never any ‘real’ climbing involved, but it was a tedious trial and error process to find the best way. I would commonly find I would have to pick one of several boulders and pull myself up and over only to find the next boulder too large. Thus, I’d go back and try the next possible route — and it would go through. It would have actually been fun if not for my incredibly sore knee and the fact I was already way behind schedule.

Winding my way up the canyon I went — in and out of the creek, up and over the boulders. Just before getting to Showerbath Spring my route was blocked by deep water. After a bit of scouting I couldn’t find any other way around, so I decided to try and ford the creek without my gear first. I found the best route was just up to my chest. So, I went back and carried my pack above my head for the short distance and reached the far bank w/o getting my gear wet.

Arriving at Showerbath Spring was quite the sight. This aptly-named spring was discovered (and named) by John Wesley Powell on his early expeditions exploring the Grand Canyon. A huge overhanging rock is covered in ferns and springs which shower down to the creek and rocks below. One can easily walk under and get a great shower.

Completely beat I decided to camp just around the bend for the night. Though it wasn’t nearly as far I had hoped to get on the day, my body needed to recoup and the great water source was too tempting to pass up.

Day 9
The race was on — not getting as far as I had hoped yesterday (or the day before) really put the pressure on me today. I needed to get back to my Jeep so I could drive back into civilization and get to a phone. Not having a satellite phone has really put me under the gun — but I need to get back to work tomorrow anyway so I need to push it as hard as I can.

The morning was slow going as I followed my progress on my Topo map with each bend in the canyon. I found I could make it around one major bend about every 20 minutes — then I’d take a 5 minute break — then repeat. Soon I passed the last spring. Sure enough right up canyon from this water source there was absolutely no sign of water. Hiking really got tough at this point as it was back to all sand and bowling-ball-sized boulders.

By 11am I was back to the junction of Jumpup Canyon. I had closed the loop and successfully circumnavigated Fishtail Mesa! Now… just about 16 miles back to the Jeep.

The next several miles I made fairly good time. It was comforting to know exactly what lie ahead; I knew there were no major obstacles and that a flowing stream awaited ahead. That said, it was shaping up to be a miserably hot day as temperatures must have been approaching mid 90s. Long stretches of cobblestone and sand which I had barely noticed on my way in where now the bane of my existence! For a long stretch at midday it was hard to find shade as the sun was so high in the sky.

Despite the frequent breaks, I kept pushing on. It was becoming a very frustrating effort as I began getting more and more angry about my broken Sat phone; More and more mad about my body not being able to do what I wanted it to do.

Back to the flowing water I took an extended break to cool down and have a late lunch. The frogs were going crazy once again. I was beginning to get worried that I wouldn’t make it out tonight.

With the sun going down I was finally back to Hack Canyon. Despite that fact that the Sun had dipped below the horizon, the temperature was still incredibly warm. I pushed forward as quickly as I could now wondering if I would be able to make it up the cliffs in what was sure to be darkness by my arrival.

About an hour later it was dark, but I continued to push forward hiking with my headlamp on. After about a half an hour of this my body started playing tricks on me. My body was so incredibly exhausted my eyes and ears were calling for a surrender. As I strained to see where I was going as I made my way up the dry stream-bed I would frequently stop thinking I was about to run into a tree or a boulder. As my eyes adjusted I could see I was still in the middle of the sandy stream-bed. Then my ears started playing tricks on me too — as the gentle wind began to sound like a roaring river and then static on a radio — and then with a shake of my head it would be silent. Then, not to be outdone, my eyes continued to fail as as I walked the stones and sand beneath each footstep appeared to begin to sprout grass and grow deeper and deeper with each step I took. I knew I couldn’t continue and that I was in no shape to climb up the towering cliffs in my condition.

I went to the edge of the stream-bed and threw out my tent and sleeping bag, set my alarm and went right to bed.

Day 10 (of an 8-day hike!)
I got up at 5:30 in the morning to begin the mad-dash out of the canyon. Because I didn’t get out all my gear I was packed up and back hiking before 6am and was already a mile up the canyon before the Sun’s first rays shone on high cliff walls.

I passed the location I had camped on night 1. I picked up the water I had cached and headed up the sloping hills to the base of the cliff. As if a part of a military regiment I gave it all I had as I picked a route up the cliffs to where I knew I would intersect the unofficial trail.

The sleep had definitely done me good as I had so much more energy this morning than I had the night before. But, I was still sucking wind pretty hard trying to climb the 800′ feet to get up the cliffs.

Somehow on the way up I lost the trail. Too impatient to retreat and attempt to the find the trail again I decided to climb up a ravine. In hindsight this was probably a mistake as it took quite a bit of time to route-find up the loose rock. At one point I was sprawled out on all fours trying to maintain my balance. But soon I was able to pick up the trail again higher and I quickly climbed higher and higher.

As I made my way over the slight ridge I finally gained the sight I was waiting for — my Jeep in the distance parked atop a nearby hill. Just 20 minutes more and I was there!

It was 9am and I quickly loaded up and hit the road. It was a weird sensation to immediately be back in a motor vehicle and watch the landscape roll by so quickly! I was driving like a madman trying to get back within cell phone range.

By 10:15 I was on the phone with Family/Girlfriend/Work — telling them all that I was ok. My father had already spoken to the park service and they were prepping the first stage of a search. Disaster averted.

After the Hike
I’m back in California after a long, somber drive back from the canyon. It was a great trip — though I am bummed that it ended in such a stressful manner. Even though I never felt in any real danger out on the trail, it was a bit of an eye-opener how even a moderate injury can really impact one’s plans. I hate it that I worried those who care about me. I realized several things:

1) I should never have made my emergency call time be less than 36hrs after my estimated completion time.

2) I should not have planned an 8-day hike in such a tight schedule (9 days)

3) My 37-year-old body can’t do the same things it could at 17!


See the Video Report for this hike.
See the Extended Gallery for this hike.
See the Map for this hike.

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  1. NIce, Jammer! Starting the research for my much shorter 4-6 day trip down to this area. Thanks for the beta! Great description and great photography.