The Grand Canyon is a vast tangle of burly stone, treacherous cliffs, solid walls, and never-ending viewpoints. Every trail promises to deliver yet another “spectacular view”, an unequalled “scenic experience”, or “the best angle” of this canyon or that waterfall. The truth is, the Grand Canyon is only as varied as your willingness to explore allows it to be. While Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, and North Kaibab Trail are beautiful, there is a monotony in their design- that is, they all follow neat ridge lines, switchbacks, and the dust of thousands of hikers. If you really want to do some adventure hiking and enjoy some real solitude, unmaintained trails are the answer.
The Grand Canyon is host to dozens of unmaintained trails, each one as forewarned as the next. You already know that the park’s maintained trails entail a whole list of precautions and preparation, and while hiking the unmaintained ones is not necessarily prohibited, they will not be recommended to you by any official Grand Canyon entity. But we are hikers here, and we say that if you have a healthy respect for your safety and a realistic gauge of your fitness level, hiking these unmaintained trails is a must!
New Hance Trail
Dropping 4,422 ft/ 1,348 m in 6.5 mi/ 10.5 km, the New Hance Trail is one of the most exhilarating trails you can hike on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. If you can make it to the camping area near Hance Rapids before the dangerous heat begins (10:00am-4:00pm), you can make it back to the rim in one day. However, keep in mind that the New Hance Trail is very steep, extremely rugged, and most of the “path” consists of joint-shattering ledges and scrambles- a combination that makes climbing out a real feat in the dark. Also keep in mind that descending can take you more than five hours, the climb out even longer. If you plan well, the best itinerary is camping overnight near Hance Rapids and hiking out the next morning.
If you hike this trail, know that the Colorado River is the only reliable water source, available year round. However, you should carry purification tablets or a portable filter, as the water will most likely have to be treated as well as settled (it tends to be heavily silted). For your climb down, you should carry at least 7 liters of water.
A day-hike to Santa Maria Spring or Dripping Springs via the Hermit Trail is another great South Rim hiking option. This trail is extremely rugged and very steep, but it gives you day-hike options of 2.5 mi/ 4 km to Santa Maria Springs (a 5 mi/ 8 km round trip) and 3.5 mi/ 5.6 km to Dripping Springs (a 7 mi/ 11.3 km round trip). The trail is very well marked, despite being unmaintained, it is in pretty good condition.
If you’ve got a bit of hiking experience and are in pretty good physical condition, ditch the touristy rim-trails for a truly satisfying day hike. Despite the challenging terrain, most people can hike to Santa Maria Springs in a little over an hour and and to Dripping Springs in a little over two hours. If you make it to either before the heat strikes full force, make sure to soak yourself for a breezy climb out.
Did you know that the North Rim features a second rim-to-river trail? The North Kaibab Trail’s rugged brother, the Nankoweap Trail has a reputation as the most challenging rim-to-river trail on the Grand Canyon, and that’s saying something. If you still think the North Kaibab is the longest and the South Kaibab the steepest and most exposed, you know nothing of the Nankoweap.
Dropping 5,640 ft/ 1,735 m to the Colorado River, the Nankoweap trail is classified as the most strenuous trail of all the named trails on the Grand Canyon. The Nankoweap trail is made longer by it’s lack of water. Except for an elusive seep past Marion Point, there is no water access along the trail, the only reliable source being the Colorado River, 14 mi/ 23 km from the trailhead. In addition to beginners, those afraid of heights are not encouraged to hike this trail as the exposure can be quite disarming.
Despite the danger (or perhaps because of it), this trail is truly an experience on it’s own- sandstone cliffs, dusty redwall and limestone, thick buttes, earthy mesas, and impressive hoodoos are just the beginning of your adventure. You’ll also have the entire scenic feast to yourself, as well as an isolated camp right beside the Colorado River and the option of exploring Nankoweap Rapids as well as the granaries left by ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples.
If you do decide to take on the challenge of Nankoweap Trail, make sure you have backcountry reservations because while this is bound to be an amazing experience, you should not, under any condition try to hike rim-to-river in one day.
Another rigorous rim-to-river trail, is Tanner Trail. For an unmaintained trail, it is in fair condition, however be warned that “fair condition” for a primitive trail merely hints that the path is somewhat discernible. What you really need to know is that the trail is waterless until you reach the Colorado River (7.6 mi/ 12.2 km from the trailhead), exposed to direct sunlight, relentlessly rough, and strenuously steep. That being said, the Grand Canyon knows how to reward effort. In addition to giving you a consistent view of the Colorado River, this trail also provides access to some of the most superb views of the Eastern Grand Canyon and Marble Canyon.
Tanner trail has been in use since the late 1800s and while parts of the trail can be followed easily, others have been covered in rubble from rock slides and storm activity. Hikers need to be experienced as well as skilled in picking out impromptu paths along these more difficult sections.
Never has a trail made you work harder for its scenic bounty and the Tanner Trail has plenty to offer. The most magnificent view of the Palisades of the Desert lies at the rim of the Redwall. Make sure to go slowly here as the descent is treacherous- that innocent gravel scattered about the surface can cause some serious damage.
Because of the terrain, the lack of water, and its classification as one of the most unusually hot trails, we recommend that you camp out at any of the designated camping areas along the Tanner Canyon Use Area.