–A guest post by Mitch Stevens of Southwest Discoveries
Atop a narrow and exposed ledge of Redwall Limestone, we gazed at Mystic Falls cascading 200 feet down a sheer cliff face to the abyss below. The “route” appeared to peter out and we had to locate a way down. We located a talus slope which plunged down steeply. The rock was loose and crumbly and I was concerned for my two hiking companions who weren’t used to the rugged terrain. Just a few days ago, they traveled to the southwest from cooler, wetter environs to take part in this backpacking trek. The desert sun on this early May afternoon was bearing down and the cool waters below were enticing. One careful step at a time, we gingerly climbed down the talus slope which delivered us safely to the bottom of Mystic Falls.
Welcome to adventuring at Nankoweap. Constructed in 1882 by western explorer John Wesley Powell, the Nankoweap Trail begins at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The trail starts out as a gradual uphill hike through ponderosa pine and aspen in the Kaibab National Forest. After a few miles, you reach the rim of the Grand Canyon where unbelievable panoramas unfold.
Then a challenging descent deep into the canyon will ensue, featuring stupendous views of Marble Canyon, Mt. Hayden, and the mighty Colorado River. The scenery is indeed spectacular as the geological layer cake of the ages unfolds. Rock formations tell the story of our planet’s history, 300 million to 750 million years old. Two thousand feet below, Nankoweap Creek cuts into an immense plateau, surrounded by multi-colored ridges and majestic buttes. The most imposing is Mt. Hayden, a vertical spire rising to an elevation of 8,000 feet. After reaching the bottom of the ravine after 11 rugged miles, your camp for the night will be along cottonwood lined Nankoweap Creek.
The following day’s hike will include a pleasant walk down canyon along the trickling creek to the Colorado River, following the path of least resistance. You will cross the creek numerous times. When the canyon becomes confining downstream, high cliffs of Redwall Limestone and beautiful exposures of Muav Limestone make their appearance. After 2.5 miles, the landscape opens into a broad delta. Your first view of the emerald Colorado River in the distance will be mesmerizing. Not only will you finally see the river but you’ll hear the roar of the rapids, amplified by the walls of Marble Canyon. Ample places to camp abound along the Colorado River, a great location to spend a couple of days.
A short spur trail to the right ascends a steep slope which leads to Anasazi granaries and a spectacular view of the Colorado River. Most archaeological sites at Grand Canyon date back to between A.D. 1050 and A.D. 1200, a time when Anasazi peoples occupied the region. Granaries, rock art and pot shards are among the fascinating cultural artifacts you will observe in the backcountry of Nankoweap. Please bear in mind that ancient granaries and ruins are very fragile. Do not enter the ruins or climb on their stone walls.
On subsequent days, retrace your steps up Nankoweap Canyon, past the camping area you spent your first evening. If you are a strong hiker and don’t mind bushwhacking and rock hopping, hike upstream and veer right in a mile at a fork where two drainages of Nankoweap Creek intersect. Continue hiking another 3 rugged and brushy miles, following the gently flowing stream to Mystic Falls. It is there that you will take in the spectacular waterfall we mentioned earlier. Soak in the beauty of this remote and mesmerizing part of Grand Canyon. Moreover, there are ancient and seldom scene Native American granaries high up on a cliff face across the canyon.
Above all, what you will experience at Nankoweap is the real Grand Canyon, the raw and unspoiled grandeur of this most magnificent gorge, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Read about more hikes in the American Southwest: Take a Hike: 7 of the Grandest Adventures in the Southwest