The Nankoweap: Don’t Look Down – Part 1 of 3

I’m glad I didn’t listen.

If I had listened, or paid attention to the YouTube videos of the Nankoweap Trail, I might have missed out on a once in a lifetime hike. [I mean that figuratively and literally — I’m not going back.] But I’m glad I hiked the Nankoweap last month [Oct. 16-23].  It was beautiful beyond words. Challenging, too, a high risk, high reward adventure.

The Nankoweap Trail is in the Grand Canyon National Park, in what’s called “back country,” and when I was invited to go I went to the Internet to see what the National Park Service had to say about it.

The description wasn’t too worrisome.

This is a mostly waterless trail, with significant exposure in places,” the park service said. “This trail is not recommended for people with a fear of heights.”

I’m afraid of heights but it wasn’t too worrisome because this wasn’t my first rodeo. I was a Grand Canyon backpacking veteran, or so I thought. In 2012 I hiked rim to rim, down the North Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and back up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. I thought I knew what narrow looked like.

I was greatly mistaken.

This is a wide spot in the tail where I sat down to rest, leaned over, and took this photo.
This is a wide spot in the Nankoweap Trail. When I sat down to rest I leaned over and took this photo.

Significant exposure,” it turned out, meant that part of the trail, a mile or more, heck, several miles by my reckoning, is 12 inches wide or less. Some of it is boot wide and tilted toward steep slopes that end in cliffs. Sometimes the cliff is right there beside the trail. If you fall you could get hurt, bad. You could get killed.

In a word, the Nankoweap Trail was hairy beyond anything I had ever seen, and I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

I’m not the only one saying that about the Nankoweap, either.

This trail is not one to be taken lightly,” an outdoor photographer posted. “The Park Service lists it being the ‘MOST difficult of the named trails in Grand Canyon’ and after hiking it once I would have to say that I must agree with that classification. The Nankoweap in many places is simply trouble waiting to happen…”

Now, let me pause right here.

A lot of it look like this, or worse.
A lot of the Nankoweap Trail looked like this, or worse.

A lot of you, backpackers especially, think I am exaggerating. I understand — I know why.  When I hiked the A.T. in 2015 I ran into right many folks, bless every one of them, who overstated the difficulties of the trail they had just hiked, and that I was about to hike. I might even have done that myself a time or two.

But there is no exaggerating the difficulties you will encounter on the Nankoweap. The National Park Service recommends that you allow two days to hike eight miles, from the trail head at the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park to Nankoweap Creek. Two days? That’s a clue, friend. On almost all of the A.T. I can hike eight miles before lunch, backwards. Well, OK, not backwards, but you get my point.

On the rim to rim hike in the canyon I did five years ago I was on what’s called a “corridor trail” and what I now call a “tourist trail.”

Phantom Ranch in the Fall.
Phantom Ranch in the Fall.

There were scores of other hikers out there with us. We were in the canyon three days and two nights and we stayed at campgrounds with picnic tables and a bathroom. There were rest areas with water. We ate supper at a restaurant at the bottom, near the Colorado River, called Phantom Ranch. There was a water fountain on a side trail in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoyed that hike. I did, a lot, and the friends I hiked with too. But in no way did it prepare me for the Nankoweap.

* * *

You may be wondering, so? Didn’t anyone slip and fall on the back country hike?

Yes.

And I’ll get to that.

* * *

Jim McDonald, L, Pat Stith
Jim McDonald, L, Pat Stith

I was invited to hike the Nankoweap by a new friend, Jim McDonald. Jim emailed me last April about a review I had written about the movie, “A Walk In The Woods,” a comedy about the Appalachian Trail. [I didn’t like it.] I wrote back and we began corresponding. Jim told me he was a backpacker too, mostly in the Grand Canyon, and in June he invited me to hike the Nankoweap Trail.

For years I had wanted to go on a back country hike in the Grand Canyon, but I wanted to go with someone who knew exactly what they were doing. And when Jim told me the hike organizer’s trail name was “Canyon John” I told him to count me in. You don’t want to go hiking in the back country with someone who’s called “Lost Again;” you want to go with “Canyon John.”

Canyon John Lavene
Canyon John Laneve: This was his 29th hike in the Grand Canyon.

This would be Canyon John’s 29th hike in the Grand Canyon –a total of more than 100 nights– and he tried to warn me about the Nankoweap, a trail he had been unable to hike the first time he tried, in 2007.

When Jim told Canyon John, whose real name is John Laneve, that I had accepted an invitation to join them, John responded:

Jim – you can forward this to PAT. As he may want to view these to see the most dangerous part of this trail.”

Go to YouTube, he said in his email, type in “Chris Eacker” and take a look at his Nankoweap videos.

[You might want to look at them yourself, paying closest attention to #4 [0:35]; #5 [0:19]; #9 [0:13], #10 [0:27], #11 [1:11] and #14 [0:42]]

Jim is the main reason I ignored those warnings. He forwarded Canyon John’s message to me along with one of his own:

All this is very helpful, but the only way to truly understand this is to do it. It is not nearly as intimidating in person as it is in these videos.”

I wanted to believe him, so I did.

Canyon John told me after the hike, “I wasn’t trying to scare you. I just wanted you to know what you were getting yourself into.”

Continued tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “The Nankoweap: Don’t Look Down – Part 1 of 3”

  1. I hiked Nankoweap myself for the first time in October, solo. It was magnificent, as all treks into the canyon are. Enjoyed your write up.

  2. Somewhere different ? Hmmm Not going back ? EH ? I’ll give you a few more months to think about it. Maybe by next year – you’ll be ready for Nanko # 2 ??

  3. Pat, very enjoyable Part 1. Thank you for sharing. You capture very eloquently much of what went through my head before my first attempt at Nankoweap! You are a good writer and a fine hiking partner.

    1. Thanks so much, David, that’s high praise because you were there — you know. Let’s do it again one of these days, just somewhere different.

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