Powell Plateau to Phantom Ranch
In February 2021, Daniel Conley, Caleb Dusek, and I completed a 16-day section of our Grand Canyon thru-hike: Rider Canyon to Phantom Ranch. During the summer, I became eager to get back to the Canyon in the fall, to finish the Lee's Ferry to Rider section and do another long stretch. We completed the Lee's to Rider hike in 3 days in October, and for my next trip I decided on Powell Plateau to Phantom Ranch. This was a product of my desire to have access to do a long trip without food caches, and end at the South Rim to avoid being the potential of being snowed in. Daniel and I completed this trip November 7-14th. Caleb was unable to make it, but we were joined by a new friend, Ben Kilbourne.
Day 1: Powell Plateau
We began this trip in an unusual way; making an event of being on top. I purposefully set our first night's camp on Powell Plateau because I've always wanted to visit the infamous old growth ponderosa pine there. Powell Plateau is isolated from the rim, but barely. As a result of that isolation, the hike to our observation deck led us through forests more historic in structure than anywhere else I know.
The light we found confirmed that it was a good day to be high. Perched here at Dutton Point, map open, we gazed upon our route through the rock.
A California condor arose from the depths, appearing in front of our faces suddenly, with eye contact. It circled us for minutes, close enough for us to see the tag on its wing. When we were (unfortunately) confirmed alive, it lost interest. It headed in a straight line for Point Sublime, remaining visible until it got there. Perhaps it hoped to find food scraps from car campers.
This bird never flapped it's wings. When you live on leftovers, energy must be conserved wisely. Our experience of the same route would be much different. The flying sensation was present often, but the exertion level drastically higher.
Day 2: Descent into Shinumo
We had decided to wake up and pack naturally, which resulted in leaving camp at 8:30. The sun had come up at 7:30 and warmed us nicely. The walk down from Powell went smoothly, and shortly we were at Queen Anne Spring, which was a decent trickle. I filled the dirty bag and hung up the gravity filter. With 3 liters of clean water, we headed down.
The flow of Muav Canyon only increased as we descended the drainage through the Supai. For much of the walk it was enough to be a small obstacle. That section of the trail just follows the drainage, which wasn't difficult except for lots of brush. Soon, we reached the top of the Redwall. We walked along the top for a bit, stopping occasionally to gaze down into the narrows. Eventually, the trail descended to a small limestone ledge about 20ft below the top of the Redwall. The unlikely seeming ledge went on for a while, then lead us to a place where we descended to the canyon floor, still in the Redwall. This place was beautiful with flowing water and many cottonwoods.
At the top of the Muav Limestone, we stopped for lunch at a decent spot, although after lunch we realized we should have gone just a little further. The name "Muav Canyon" became justified, as this was easily the most stunning display of Muav limestone I've ever seen. The continually flowing water certainly helped.
As one would expect, the canyon opened up below the Muav and became a mellow, sunny wash. Here though, we observed some cool slopes of Bright Angel Shale unlike anything I've seen on the south side. It was reminiscent of some of the washes along the Butte Fault.
The trail followed the Tonto for a while, bringing us to an overlook of the raging Shinumo Creek. After plummeting down to the water, we found a sunny spot and got wet. It had been quite warm and without hesitation I got in the water with my clothes and shoes on. I knew that for the upcoming hike up Shinumo I would want to be okay with walking in water.
I was certainly right. The canyon narrowed dramatically and walking in the water was often the best option. It was incredible to be following such a large creek through the schist. We passed numerous small waterfalls and large pools. After about an hour, we reached the turnoff for Flint, which seemed to contribute no water, so we chose to camp near the junction.
Day 3: Flint Creek to Tuna Creek
We woke at 6:30 to a beautiful pink sky. Walking at 7:30, we made quick progress up Flint Creek. We noticed some interesting water-deposited "pavement", for lack of a better description. Often, the place where water was flowing was on an elevated ramp rather than in a channel. But not much water flowed. By about 8:30 we were at the point where we needed to leave the drainage. We paused here for a moment to survey the Redwall break.
The first step was to get through the Muav, which was accomplished by walking up a steep slope of debris. This led us straight to the base of a Redwall cliff to the right of where it was broken. We ascended a couple short lower Redwall bands by finding easy breaks. Then, we headed left towards the gully we assumed broke the Redwall. We soon realized it did not.
"Oh, there's a rope", Ben said. Between us and the back of the gully was a pretty vertical but textured face about 50 feet tall. Down a crack in it was a long rope, accompanied near the top by red and blue pieces of webbing, only about 20 feet, presumably for a handline.
We decided it would be better to climb without packs. I climbed up first, carefully but without much fear or struggle. I did end up using the webbing near the top as a handline - I gave it a good tug first to feel good about it's attachment. Once at the anchor (a bush), we decided Ben should climb up so he could help pull packs.
The pack raising was a real pain, since we were standing above the vertical section. After giving both of ours a good grinding, and putting a small tear in Ben's, we developed a better system. I stood 10 feet below at the top of the vertical cliff so I could get a better angle on the pull. I had to have one hand on the handline to stay safe, so I pulled with one hand and Ben captured my progress. This worked very well and we got Daniel's pack up with minimal scraping. At the top, I realized that the only damage mine took was to the sleeve that holds the frame stay. Right above the hipbelt it had been sliced open. It remained fine for the rest of the day, though.
From there, we sidehilled up the majority of the Redwall, moving up and left. At the end, we had to climb a short distance to get to a small saddle. To get from here to the mainland was along a wild ridge that was, for a short distance, reminiscent of the El Diente-Wilson traverse we did in Colorado. Finally, we were above the Redwall. Now, we could see firsthand how far the Point Sublime pass was.
The next 2 hours or so involved walking on top of the Redwall towards the pass. It was extremely brushy, and we had to walked around or through many gullies. Heinous. The last hour was spent as ending through Supai to reach the saddle after 1pm. That was equally brushy. At least it wasn't scary, but it was otherwise quite bad. The whole morning had been pretty sweaty.
Finishing lunch at 2, we headed down directly. Trending right at first, we were funneled into a gully of Supai that was steep but manageable. Lots of large boulders were stable. We reached the top of the Redwall remarkably soon and began descending small slides. That was fairly fun. We knew there would be 3 limestone pouroffs we would need to bypass.
The highest one was the most tricky, but we quickly used process of elimination to decide where to go. Before long, we found ourselves in an area that perfectly matched the route description we had, and provided 2 options. Neither option was overly bad, and soon we were at the bottom of the limestone knob on canyon left. The next 2 pouroffs we came to that needed bypassing were easier. Both were done on canyon right using debris slides.
At the bottom of the steep layers, we were relieved. We walked quickly down the bouldery wash towards the confluence of the Tuna Creek arms. There, at about 4:45 we wondered what we should do. We decided to keep walking a bit in case more camp options lingered below. Shortly, we realized that Tuna was to be a very narrow canyon all the way to the river. With a cloudy sky, we didn't want to camp in the watercourse. We went back up and camped just below the confidence, which is also just below the Tapeats. Good water pools were shortly below in the schist bedrock.
Today was a hard day and we are all tired. Ben was a little shaken up by the exposure of the climbing, but he made it through without issue. Daniel and I were fine with it, but certainly had a physically and mentally taxing day.
Day 4: Tuna Creek to Crystal Rapid
We awoke and packed naturally, leaving camp at almost 9, but with much excitement to walk down Tuna Creek. We passed the place where we had turned back the night before. Shortly, we came to a large chockstone with a 10 foot drop. This was puzzling. We debated for a bit. If we could get down, could we get up? Could we get to the river? It looked hard enough that we actually decided to turn back, which was somewhat surprising to me.
We found a break up to the Tonto and began our "contouring around". It was fairly miserably to me. At noon we were two-thirds of the way to the Crystal break, and at the head of a the largest side canyon of Tuna. Here, we found an unlikely passage through the Tapeats. I climbed down it, then up, as a way of gathering information. We paused for a moment. Surely, it was easiest to just go to Crystal. If this drainage didn't lead us to Tuna, we'd have a thirsty afternoon.
I had been mourning the loss of Tuna as a section of the trip. We decided to try it. Quickly and easily we got us and our packs down the ~8 foot Tapeats break. Walking down the wash brought us to pour schist pouroffs, some of which we walked down. All of the bypasses we're done on canyon right, the longest being up and around via a big bowl visible on the topo map. Before too long, we were in the bed of Tuna, relieved and stoked!
We knew we had a mile walk to the river, then a mile river route to Crystal. We decided to walk up Tuna, even if it cause us to not make Crystal that day. Tuna was incredible. The bed of the canyon wasn't too fancy, mostly just gravel. But the walls were massive, sheer, polished, narrow, and meandering. All of these made it feel very fun to be there. The rock was magnificent in color and texture. We really enjoyed being able to walk through there after all.
Eventually we reached our small chockstone. It was somewhat overhung, and difficult to climb. I wanted to climb it to know for future reference. I was able to, using the smaller rocks wedged in the crack on the right side for handholds. If those weren't there, it might not be possible. It was indeed pretty hard. Daniel climbed it too.
We reached the river at 4:30 and quickly turned our focus upstream, surveying the river route. We could almost see Crystal Rapid, and could certainly see that the first half of the mile would involve some cruxes, but the end of those was in sight.
Without wasting too much time, we decided to try it. We packed away our poles with haste, and blasted off into the schist, Ben leading and setting a fast pace. Basically, we tried to walk at river level unless cliffs met the river, then we had to go up and around. So we were using our hands quite frequently.
The terrain was incredible, a bit cleaner than I expected, and it felt amazing to be charging through. We were making great progress towards Crystal. We had decided that at about 5:00 if it felt like we wouldn't make it, we should go back. At 5:10, we had finished the last of the cruxes. Stoked! Great time.
Day 5: Crystal Rapid to 94-Mile Beach
For me, this was without question the worst day of the trip. I actually took no pictures for the entire day. The photo below is from Day 6, but is characterizes what Day 5 was like for the whole day. Some words about it below.
We awoke at 7am, aiming to walk by 8. But we had not yet seen Crystal Rapid, so we spent some time there observing the technicality. Also, I felt generally sluggish getting ready. I was unenthusiastic about the day and still felt tired.
After briefly taking a wrong ascent route, we returned to the drainage and walked up Crystal. That was what I really wanted to be doing, it felt exciting. But soon, we found our break-off point, the two-tiered waterfall described by a trip report. We slowly motored up the steep slope towards the Tapeats Break, which was at first invisible, then abundantly clear upon walking around a corner to the right.
On top of the Tonto, it was time to grind. We stepped through cactus for about 5 hours, contouring around endless drainages on sideslopes. I wasn't entirely miserable through this section, but close. One perk was finally having some time to make progress on my audiobook, "The Secret Knowledge of Water". It was interesting. But generally, this section sucked. It was hot. It just wasn't exciting. It was all the same, endlessly.
From a place above 94-mile canyon, we dropped into the drainage. The upper sections provided some fun schist narrows, and we had to bypass a couple drops. The rest of the walk to the beach was fine. I was super tired by the time we arrived.
Day 6: 94-Mile Beach to Phantom Creek
Daniel woke up before me today, and immediately headed to the river with his sleeping pad. Poor guy had reinflated it multiple times throughout the night. He found the leak. Also, he reported that he had woken up to a ringtail on his ratsack, and it had already managed to move the whole sack a couple feet! Wild.
We easily found a good path leading to the ascent gully. This gully, and the Tapeats Break at the top, were more enjoyable than the climb out of Crystal. After some relatively easy contouring around on the Tonto we were above Trinity. The canyons we had to walk around today seemed much smaller and there were less cactus fields. This section ended earlier, too. By noon we were ready at the top of the drop into Trinity
On the way down the gully, I stopped at the decomposing body of a ringtail. It was neat, but did feel sad in a way. At the bottom of the gully, we found a shady spot for lunch. We broke out the glue to fix Daniel's pad and I put some on my pack, too. It had taken some damage to the frame sleeve from the hauling and I didn't want it to cause issues.
Carrying on, we headed up the drainage on the other side of Trinity. This was a nice way to climb out of the bed, although we got quite warm in the afternoon sun. The walking gradually steepened until it required frequent hands, then we topped out on the shelf we needed to be on.
This shelf was truly amazing. It was right at the base of the Redwall, high above the Tonto, such a rare place to be. The walking was mostly easy and direct, too. We followed a faint route along the platform, enjoying mostly easy steps.
Around the corner, a large rockslide made the walking steeper and more difficult. Shortly after that we began the climb to the Muav Limestone saddle of Cheops. Topping out on the saddle was an amazing moment. The saddle alone is an incredible Muav platform. The late afternoon light made for beautiful illumination of Budda, Zoroaster, and Angel's Gate. And in a way, this saddle seemed to separate a very remote world from a more civilized one. The other side was the watershed of the corridor.
The descent into Phantom was steep and less obvious than I expected, but we dispatched it quickly. Anticipation built as we nearest the audible creek. Another hot day had me excited to bathe in the water. I could see a string of cottonwoods running up Phantom Creek, then Haunted Canyon, most of them quite yellow. The trees were following the water, as we would on our layover the following day.
Getting to the Phantom Creek campsite felt like a big victory. The hard parts of the trip were over. This campsite is incredible, the creek flows through gorgeous slickrock and provides ledges to camp on and good swimming opportunities. Cottonwoods and canyon walls tower above. We eagerly got in the water and made dinner.
I was much happier today than yesterday, and I spent a lot of time pondering why. The hiking was easier, more varied, and seemed to provide more in return. So perhaps those are good reasons. I also thought a lot about how good the flow of the route is. It links up so many logical features to make for a great day. We seemed to not force our way through the landscape via brute effort, but flow with it more naturally. I really liked that. Route design has begun to feel like an art to me, and I look forward to practicing it further.
Day 7: Phantom Creek Layover
Today was a simple day. We enjoyed a slow morning and didn't leave camp until 9:30, headed for Haunted Canyon. Following the creek was nice at first, but became very brushy in Haunted itself. This didn't bother me too much, since we didn't have a difficult objective. I actually enjoyed crawling along through the watercourse, with notable exceptions to that enjoyment when it became too dense to travel, and bypasses had lots of yucca.
By noon we were at Haunted Spring, and stopped for lunch. We enjoyed drinking some fresh water from that spring. Daniel wanted to keep going to check out the Redwall breaks further up canyon, but I really didn't. Ben and I headed back. At first I felt like I was flying through the drainage compared to upstream travel, then at one point I emerged from the corridor to look for signs of Ben. I waited for a bit, sure that he was behind me, then saw him probably 200 meters ahead. He had found a great cairned trail that made travel drastically faster. Soon we were back at Phantom.
I sat alone above the confluence for a while soaking in the place. Isis Temple towered above in a way that I had not before seen it, so close. Upcanyon I could see Shiva Temple and the intimidating Redwall break below. I really like Phantom Creek, it seems like an excellent place for a basecamp trip. Eventually I headed towards camp, and on the way got distracted playing in the ledges of the Tapeats along the creek. I had a great time with that and managed to stay above the ground for about 20 minutes, until I was finally cliffed out. Fortunately rather than backtrack, I was able to transfer to a cottonwood and downclimb that. Very satisfying!
Our last night in the canyon was a peaceful one. I enjoyed finishing off my mashed potatoes. The moon has grown much fuller over the course of the trip and I can see quite well presently. Our nights have been beautiful, and this is no exception. Over dinner we talked about how hard it is to imagine the outside world nearing winter, when it's been so warm and dry here.
Day 8: Exit via Phantom Creek
We woke at 7 and hiked at 8. Down towards the impending 20ft pouroff, that we knew would require a handline. I was able to climb back up without using the handline, good to know.
Heading down Phantom Creek in the cold morning shade, we came to our first deep pool. Waist deep. Yikes.
Soon, we were at another pool. A chockstone caused a small waterfall into a very deep pool. I went first, and held my pack above my head. We weren't really prepared for swimming, having insufficient dry bags. The pool only took 10 steps to cross, but on perhaps the 5th my head went under water, and I instinctively threw my pack towards shore. I swam towards it and got it out of the pool quickly, it had barely taken any water. Nice! Daniel made it through unscathed by jumping over the deepest section, but Ben shared my fate.
As we carried on down canyon, we passed many pools, some even deeper or longer, or both. At least 2 pools could serve as great cliff jumping spots. Luckily, we were able to bypass all future deep pools by scrambling around. Some of these scrambles were difficult.
By 10:30, we were at the confluence with Bright Angel creek. Still in Phantom, we immediately we saw people, and Daniel commented about how large the front hiker's pack was. I noticed it was a Wildland pack, and the guide was wearing a green hoody. Could it be my friend Noah? We said a quick goodbye to Ben who turned north, and Daniel and I turned south to catch up to the group. It was Noah! A great way to return to civilization.
We walked quickly to Phantom Ranch and through to the other side, stopping at the bathroom to dry our gear in the sun. We headed across the bridge and arrived at Pipe at noon, then after some snacking departed at 12:20. A pretty smooth hike put us at the rim at 4:20. Then, we went to the Backcountry Office to get our next permit and ended up talking to Jen Hogan for a while until Joelle arrived. Fun!
This was another excellent trip through truly remote Grand Canyon backcountry. The more I do this, the more I realize how much there is to do. While in these incredibly hard to access places, Daniel and I are constantly trying to balance how to spend our time. On this trip, we passed through 3 zones that warrant an entire week each, but we could only give them a day. I'll forever be inspired by how big this place is and I'm forever grateful to have Daniel and others to appreciate it with.
That being said, 2021 has been a gnarly year. I spent 27 days just doing thru-style hiking in the Canyon. My lifetime tally of Grand Canyon days is up to 111, as of the end of this trip. Between work and play, I now feel fully comfortable living in the backcountry. I think often about how I no longer miss the "comforts" of home - beds, showers, food. All of these can be replicated well in the backcountry, if one plans accordingly.
But if there's anything I do miss about home, it's the people. It's Joelle, if she's not with me. The diversity of activities is nice too. I'm glad to be done with big trips for the year. Well, I have one more guide trip. Then, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we start planning more...
With this food, and 4L of water, I had a starting pack weight 46lbs. I didn't desire any different food, but I had too much, by approximately 1 whole day.
-8 bags kettle chips
-12 protein oatmeal, 16 fruit
-1 jar peanut butter
-20oz mashed potatoes
-2 Mac n cheese
-28oz sliced pepperoni
-2lbs of cheddar
-2 containers of fried onions
I greatly enjoyed using my new backpack, a SWD Big Wild for this trip. It appears to be everything I want in a pack. It's light, durable, waterproof, carries weight very comfortably, and has excellent pockets. I did manage to damage it when hauling, but that was the most extreme thing I've ever had to put a pack through.
I could've done without my rain jacket and tent on this trip, since it never rained. My 20 degree quilt was overkill, but my 50 wouldn't have been enough. I brought down slippers but never used them
Everything else was just fine.