Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona - Backpacking Trip
Hiking the Jumpup, Kanab, Deer Creek Canyon Loop - "Death March or Grand Adventure?"
by Joseph A. Sprince - Photography by Gerald B. Allen
Over the years, we had the good fortune of backpacking to the bottom of the Grand
Canyon six times. We had started with the popular and relatively easy "tourist"
trails and progressed to steadily more challenging routes each time. One reason
was the sense of adventure. Another was that as the park became ever more popular
and crowded, you had to get far out in the backcountry to experience "real" wilderness.
And perhaps most important was the fascination with the world's most sublime
natural place. When you go below the rim it's a "world apart". For some people,
it gets in their blood, and the urge to return is very powerful.
For our seventh and, to date, last trip we planned a true expedition. Our week-long,
sixty mile walk would include secondary trails, routes, and trailless cross
country. This would be our most challenging trip into Grand Canyon National Park.
There were some risks. We had not done a serious backpack in several years.
The available literature describing the less traveled places was pretty sparse.
On previous trips we knew exactly what we were getting into. Not so this time.
The rangers always warn hikers not to overestimate themselves or underestimate
the power of the canyon and its rugged environment. If a hiker gets in trouble
on the crowded tourist trails, the worst that usually happens is severe discomfort.
If it happens in the wilderness the result is a "Death March" or a "Grand Adventure",
depending on how you look at it.
Shown above, our starting point at Indian Hollow Campground (point #1 on map below).
This friendly, wooded place gave no inkling to what would follow.
Below and right are a map and numbered itinerary for those who wish to
follow the details of this adventure. The numbers are referenced in the narrative.
Kanab Creek is a major tributary of the Colorado River located in the northwest
section of Grand Canyon National Park. It flows into the Colorado River roughly
fifty miles downstream from the Phantom Ranch area which is the focus of visitor
activities at the bottom of the Canyon.
How to read the map.
The green areas are forests above the rim of the canyon. The off-white areas
are within the canyon itself. The brown lines indicate elevation changes. The many
steep-walled canyons and side canyons which together comprise one Grand Canyon
are clearly outlined by tightly packed brown lines. The entire loop was about
55-60 miles of walking.
- Starting point at Indian Hollow Campground.
- Crosscountry to Sowats Point access road.
- Enter Grand Canyon via Sowats Point Trail.
- Got lost on Esplanade due to faint trail. Map and compass navigation required to find entry into Sowats Canyon.
- Entry into Sowats Canyon. First water at nearby Mountain Sheep Spring.
- Entry into Jumpup Creek canyon.
- Transverse Jumpup Creek narrows.
- Confluence with Kanab Creek reached on afternoon of second day.
- Approximate site of Joe's injury on third day.
- Most difficult stretch of Kanab Creek. Narrow canyon, obstacles and boulders, difficult stream crossings.
- Approximate site of Gerry's injury on fourth day.
- Easier going in Kanab Creek. Reached confluence with Colorado River on morning of fifth day.
- Transverse huge boulder field along Colorado River. Most difficult stretch of trip - a true "Death March".
- Extremely difficult and exposed hand-to-foot climb and descent of bluff blocking riverside access.
- Reached Deer Creek Falls after final mile of boulder hopping at the end of sixth day.
- Exit inner canyon via Deer Creek and Thunder River trails on seventh day.
- Final campsite on Esplanade.
- Complete hike back to Indian Hollow Campground via Thunder River trail on the eighth day. Easiest walking of trip.
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Right, a look into the canyon from the Sowats Point trail (just past point 3
on the map). The trail switchbacks down to the Esplanade (the first terrace
below the rim) on the sand dune in the lower right corner, very strenuous
We had reached Sowats Point going crosscountry (point 2) from the campground.
The biggest challenge was getting past the barbed wire fences left by ranchers.
The first inkling of trouble came in the late afternoon on the Esplanade
(point 4) when we lost the very faint trail. We had taken this roundabout trail
because there was a sure source of spring water in Sowats Canyon (point 5).
With the temperature over 90°F, you must be sure of getting water.
We decide to make a dry camp on the Esplanade and broke out the map and compass.
It is a slightly uncomfortable feeling when you are running low on water.
However we navigated correctly and found the route through the cliff
into Sowats Canyon early the next morning. And, sure enough, there was plentiful
water at Mountain Sheep Spring.
Pictured left, a view up Jumpup Canyon a short distance downstream from the
confluence with Sowats Canyon (point 6). The canyon had a small, intermittent
stream which allowed for some trees and shade, making it quite pleasant.
(Many desert streams will flow in some places, then go underground or peter
out, leaving a dry bed.)
The photo right is the Jumpup Creek Narrows (point 7) just above the confluence
with Kanab Creek. When a stream flows through vertical sections of cliff, it
is called a "Narrows". Such areas are always very fascinating and photogenic
and can be difficult if water is flowing. However the creek was dry here
and the walking easy.
Left, the site of our second night camp on Kanab Creek (just past point 8).
This part of the creek was fairly easy to walk. However as the day wore on,
the canyon narrowed and progress became more difficult. We were faced with
more stream crossings, boulders, and obstacles. Backpacks had to be removed a couple
times to scramble down steep dropoffs. Late in the afternoon, I slipped on a
loose rock crossing the stream, spraining my ankle horribly, and flipping
headfirst into a pool of quicksand with my backpack pinning my face half in the
mud (point 9, picture right was nearby). Anxious moments ensued while Gerry yanked the
pack off of my head.
We had to stop here for the night, and the next morning I couldn't walk. This
was my first moment of real fear during an outdoor experience. Rescue would take days
at this place; a helicopter could not possibly land in this narrow canyon. After much
discussion, we decided it best to continue downstream to the Colorado River
where help could be sought from the passing rafters.
Binding my ankle and using my walking stick as a cane we pushed on. Luckily, as the
day warmed, the ankle loosened up, and I could walk with a slow, painful limp.
Unfortunately, the canyon became quite difficult (point 10) with many boulder-strewn
stream crossings. What would have been strenuous in any case became excruciating.
In the early afternoon, Gerry goes down the same way, badly spraining his
ankle on a loose rock (point 11). We decide we'd better keep moving before his ankle
Fortunately, the canyon starts to widen and become less rocky. We pass a spring
area (photo, left) offering coolness and shade. We spend more time wading in the
creek to bathe the injured ankles in the cool water.
The more comfortable environment has a positive effect. We find a good camp site
for the fourth night a few miles short of the Colorado River, and feel more
confident that we can make it through despite the injuries.
The photo right is Kanab Creek, just above the confluence with the Colorado River (point 12).
We reach the Colorado River (point 12) early the next morning feeling pretty
good about things. Our thought is that the walk along the river to Deer Creek
would be one day. From there, we would take the relatively easy secondary trails
out of the canyon and back to the campground.
However as we rounded the bend out of Kanab Creek we faced a sight from a nightmare:
a gigantic boulder field hundreds of feet high extending as far as the eye could see (point 13).
There was no trail or path. We were faced with miles of boulder hopping on bad legs.
Here is where we paid the price for incomplete preparedness. We did not know
about the boulder field. We had only light weight canvas boots (with little
ankle support) for wading in Kanab Creek. This kind of hiking required strong
leather boots even without bad ankles. The air temperature was over 90°F.
There was no shade. The rocks were burning hot to the touch. We did not know to bring
gloves. Within a couple hours the tips of ALL my fingers AND toes were burned.
For good measure, there were rattlesnakes in the area, usually in the shady
spaces between rocks. The few clusters of trees offering shade were occupied
by the snakes. You had to watch every step. Progress was agonizingly slow,
less than a mile per hour.
The photo (above left) is our only one from this segment of the trip. It
shows the Colorado River just below our fifth night camp. We came upon a
small sand dune late in the afternoon, and in shade, that made a delightful
(and totally private) campsite. We had to drink river water which is safe if
you disinfect it heavily but not very tasty. (Also, freeze-dried food gets
pretty tiresome after five days of it.)
The boulder fields finally end after a couple more hours walking the next
morning. Just past Fishtail Canyon (point 14) the bluffs crowd against the
river, and the route climbs up and around the cliffs. The difficult hand-to-foot,
sometimes exposed scramble (you have to crawl or use your hands) seemed a relief
after the boulders. Plus, at the top of the bluff there was a nice lunch
spot in a shady side canyon with a very lush spring.
After returning to the river side there was a couple more hours of dreary
boulder hopping before reaching Deer Creek Falls (point 15, shown right).
The 100 foot high falls with lush greenery and delightful pools at its
bottom is one of the great oases in the Grand Canyon, a joy after the hardships
of the past two days.
Since this area is heavily visited there are designated camping areas, in this
case along Deer Creek above the cliffs. We are too exhausted to continue and
camp by the falls after everyone leaves.
The remainder of the trip would be a strenuous climb out of the canyon but on real
dirt trails without any complications. It was too shady to get photos of the
spectacular Deer Creek Narrows above the falls. The trail was on a narrow
ledge high above the roaring creek. A slip here would be fatal. The effect was
like a catwalk in a tunnel.
Shown left, we're ascending the colorful Red Wall on the Thunder River trail (point 16).
At right is our seventh and final camp site on the Esplanade (point 17). (I had
camped at this spot once before and had a horrifying experience. While squatting
to go to the bathroom, a rattlesnake came coiling out of the brush directly
beneath my exposed private areas, a couple seconds of total surprise and terror!)
The final day provided the easiest walking of the entire trip (point 18). Even the
final ascent to the rim was easier than most other trails. Below, I take one
last look at the canyon from the trailhead at the rim, a few short minutes
from my vehicle. My feelings of accomplishment were mixed with doubts about my
sanity. "Death March" or "Grand Adventure"? It depends on how you look at it.
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About Grand Canyon National Park
For detailed information visit our Grand Canyon Area Travel Guide.
Grand Canyon National Park is in northern Arizona about 80 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Most visitor activities center on the South Rim and North Rim villages on either side of the canyon. The South Rim is is the destination of most visitors, 80 miles north of Flagstaff, and convenient to Interstates 40 and 17, 210 miles from Phoenix and about 275 miles from Las Vegas. The more remote North Rim is accessed by secondary roads, about 350 miles from Phoenix and 275 miles from Las Vegas. The two rims are only about 10 air miles apart but 215 miles by road.
The South and North Rims offer visitor services such as food, lodging and camping, as well as access to the most popular trails into the canyon. The South Rim is open all year but at 7,000 feet elevation experiences winter. Many of its vista points offer views of the Colorado River and the Inner Canyon. At 8,000 feet, the North Rim offers cool summers but must close from November to May due to harsh winters. It is far less crowded than the South Rim but offers limited views of the Inner Canyon.
The Phantom Ranch sits in the bottom of the canyon between the two rims. It offers rental cabins, bunkhouses, meals and snacks. There is also a nearby campground.
Almost all Grand Canyon activities must be reserved well in advance, including lodging, camping, backpacking, mule trips, and white water rafting, as well as meals at the Phantom Ranch.
Havasu Canyon with its beautiful falls and travertine pools is outside of Grand Canyon National Park. For information, visit the Official Website of the Havasupai Tribe.
The scenic Grand Canyon Railway runs from Williams, Arizona to the South Rim and offers a variety of services.
For more park information and visitor services, visit the Grand Canyon National Park (NPS) website.
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The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona, via US-180.
The North Rim is 44 miles south of Jacob Lake, Arizona, on state 67. Each is
approximately a 5 hour drive from Phoenix or Las Vegas.
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