Susan Hollingsworth quizzed five fellow Team NRS athletes on their favorite spots to visit in the Grand Canyon, especially those off the beaten path. Check out their top picks.
You get the call that says there is a spot open and you’re invited. It doesn’t matter when or for how long, you know enough to just say yes.
You’re going on the Grand Canyon.
Sure, the whitewater ranks as legendary, but most Colorado River veterans will tell you that the real adventures start when the boats hit the beach. Many will steer you toward Nankoweap, LCR, Tapeats Creek, Deer Creek, Matkatamiba and other commonly visited places. While all deserve a visit, try exploring these lesser-known spots suggested by Team NRS athletes.
Stone Canyon with Adam Mills Elliott
Just upstream from the popular Tapeats Creek and Thunder River hike lies a less frequented hike up Stone Canyon. Here, at river mile 132.5, hikers find an easy to moderate side hike perfect for the both the mellow and ambitious characters in your group. Adam Mills Elliott, a longtime Grand Canyon river guide for AzRA with over 35 descents to his name, cites this adventure as one of his favorite places to visit in the big ditch.
“It shows the full breadth of what a desert creek has to offer,” he says. “It has waterfalls into shallow pools, giant tadpoles, and slides choked full of bright green algae.”
For these reasons, all sorts of wildlife flock to Stone Creek, making it a great place for birdwatching and spotting larger mammals like Bighorn Sheep and Mule Deer.
“It flows through a lot of different topography,” adds Adam. “Water pours through the slot canyons, then opens up to large areas where the creek winds through boulder gardens.”
The first falls can be reached quickly, offering a cool place to hang out for those seeking more relaxation time. Continuing up the trail, the hike ends at an upper falls that slices through a tall, shaded slot canyon. It’s a sight that is well worth the effort. The gentle grade also makes the moderate distance easier.
Inner Granite Gorge with Andy Maser
Fortunate enough to see the Colorado River twice in a twelve month span (no, he did not go twice in one calendar year—that’s not allowed), Andy Maser looks at the desert landscape differently than most river runners. An accomplished filmmaker, Andy has visited rivers all over the world and captured them in images.
Recently, he found himself deep in the big ditch documenting the descent of a blind kayaker down some of the river’s best whitewater. Andy most vividly remembers the feeling of floating through the canyon’s deepest stretch.
“The inner granite gorge with veins of pink Zoroaster in the Vishnu schist were a feast for the eyes,” he comments. “The camps in this stretch display the super gnarly, awesome rock well. I could just sit around and stare at it.”
The geologic formation Andy references here begins around river mile 79 near Sockdolager Rapid. From there, the dark, black walls of smooth granite rise up quickly, blocking view of the upper rock layer tiers. Geologists believe the Zoroaster and Schist layers formed up to 2,000 million years ago by the earth’s folding, burying and metamorphosis processes. The mountain range could have been as tall as today’s Rocky Mountains, until more layers were deposited on top and subsequently eroded.
Andy recommends picking a camp within the inner gorge, such as Trinity Creek or Salt Creek camps. The beaches here are smaller, but they sit tucked into the base of the deep black walls, broken with sharp slashes of pink rock cutting through what appears to be the hardest surface on the planet.
Silver Grotto with Craig Kleckner
Craig Kleckner visited the canyon in a way that few do. With twelve friends, Craig pushed off into the flow at Lee’s Ferry with no massive coolers, no paco pads, no raft support. Instead they paddled in very tightly packed kayaks for a self-support mission.
Silver Grotto stands out as one of Craig’s most memorable hikes. “You get a lot of bang for your buck,” he claims. He’s referring to the fun-to-work factor here. With just a bit of assisted (rope support) climbing, you soon reach Shinumu Creek’s beautiful tiered pools, each bowled out by years of floods. Descending back down to the river becomes a game of slides, jumps and even flips into each pool.
“A little climbing, some minimal repelling and a bit of shimmy-ing, and Silver Grotto is yours,” says Craig.
Tuckup Canyon with Leland Davis
Many of Leland Davis’ Grand Canyon river trip memories have little to do with the whitewater. For him, the river serves as a path to reach hidden canyons and abundant hiking opportunities. His top pick is the often overlooked Tuckup Canyon.
Many river trips float right past Tuckup at river mile 165, having just spent a full day on Havasu Creek and now preoccupied with running Lava ten miles downstream. However, groups like Leland’s might end up spending two or three nights at Tuckup, enjoying more of the side canyon than most would even imagine.
“It’s just a magical canyon,” Leland states matter-of-factly. “It’s not easy to get into, but you can go up forever, and the farther you go the more magical it gets.”
The hike offers a large waterfall within the first half mile. After that, a trickier climbing move requires a bit of skill and even some gear. Leland recommends recruiting the most experienced climber to set up a rope for everyone else. After a bit of wall-scaling, the canyon rewards you with incredible diversity and beauty. For instance, a conglomerate arch, made of river gravel glued together by travertine, spans the creek bed approximately two miles from the river.
If Leland had any say it in, this side hike would keep going. “If you take overnight gear you can go far enough to see the pictographs, up in the esplanade level,” he says. Try laying over for a night or two to make the jaunt into Tuckup worth your while.
Mooney Falls with Susan Hollingsworth
Like Craig, I had the luck of joining a kayak self-support trip on my third river trip down the Grand Canyon. Having the flexibility of a swift exit from camp, we were able to include some bigger hikes in our thirteen day trip. Mooney Falls is a big day—but to see some of the most incredible places on the Grand Canyon, you have to work a bit harder. Our group camped within sight of Havasu, waking up before dawn to paddle the several hundred yards to the confluence.
At river mile 157, Havasu Creek’s blue water mixes into the mighty Colorado with stark contrast. Most trips stop here to explore, but few make it all the way up to Beaver Falls, an eight-mile round trip journey that requires crossing the creek several times.
Even fewer hikers continue beyond beyond Beaver Falls. Just another two miles up the creek, the canyon ends abruptly in a tall, seemingly impassable wall. Mooney Falls drops 190 feet in a single curtain, creating wind and spray capable of knocking you off your feet.
At first glance, Mooney Falls is just another gorgeous waterfall of deep turquoise in a sea of harsh, red desert rock. Then the route to reach the top blows your mind. It’s like being in a Disney World exhibit, only better because you’re deep in the wilderness. To reach the top of the 200-foot-tall sandstone wall one must climb up using slippery ladders, carved-out stairs, and metal stakes. Caves tunnel through the travertine stalactites, and safety chains line steep and exposed stretches.
The path had me laughing out loud as I ascended. Even half-way up, I just couldn’t believe the systems required to get to the top. Once there, our group continued on to share lunch at Havasu Falls, another mile or so up.
With no steep climbs (other than the playground ascent up Mooney Falls) or technical rope work, anyone can get into this canyon to experience the magic. Some may choose to sit and relax by a lower pool, while others will charge up to Mooney. Everyone will be happy at the end of the day.
Enjoy It to Protect It
Enjoy every minute of your blessed life down in the ditch. The value of rivers like the Colorado increase exponentially every year. So much so that just like the Pacific Salmon and Leatherback Sea Turtle, this river is endangered. Demand for the water that flows down from the Rockies through the Grand Canyon has exceeded supply. American Rivers has even placed the Colorado River at the top of their 2013 Most Endangered Rivers. If this place moves you as much as everyone else who experiences it’s magic, then help by taking action through the American Rivers website.