South Canyon Day Hike

Saturday, January 20, 2006

by Dennis Foster

Eric atop cliff at bypass.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

     Eric Dhooge and I headed up to the Marble Canyon region for a day hike in South Canyon, which feeds into the Grand Canyon some thirty miles below Lee's Ferry (where the river runners put in to raft through the Grand Canyon).  The forecast was for a clear day - and it was stunningly clear - but with temperatures on the cool side, and only a maximum in the low 50's expected at the river.

     We left Flagstaff early in the morning and checked in at Cliff Dwellers Lodge a bit after 8:00 a.m.  It is the slow season, and we were able to pick up a key for our room.  Then, it was down a dirt road about 25 miles to the trailhead.  The spot is quite spectacular.  You are surrounded by the Kaibab Plateau (to  the west), the Vermilion Cliffs (to the north), the Echo Cliffs (to the northeast), Saddle Mountain (to the south) with the Marble Platform extending off to the east, punctuated by Shinumo Altar, a broad mesa.  You don't see South Canyon until you are only about 100 yards away from its rim, where we parked.

     The route heads down the side of the canyon some 1000 to 1400 feet, to the dry bed below.  The route starts with a precarious decent along a chute that is obscured from any view not right on top of it.  Then, you face a steep slope where the footing can be a bit tricky (shown to the left).  The route has to work its way into a large bay upstream a bit, where there are a couple of places that require climbing over rocky surfaces.  It took us almost an hour to reach the bed, where we could take a break and let our knees stop shaking!

Dennis atop beginning chute.

Eric below the top chute, where the route gets ... steeper!  In some places, there is a bit of exposure.

Rolling waves in the rock!

Unusual rock strata in the bed.

 Icicles and frozen water pockets.

     From the bed, we spent about two and a half hours hiking down to the junction of Bedrock Canyon with South Canyon.  Lots of boulders to climb over, under and around along the way.  We enjoyed the occasional Esplanade-like shelves that would get exposed and make the walking not only pleasant, but quite idyllic.  We passed by many water pockets and a couple of springs, but mostly these were frozen over.  Even close to the river, these water pockets were icy.  There is one big pool at the base of the drop-off where Bedrock Canyon meets South Canyon.  It looked to me like it is a permanent source of water.

     There is a long bypass at this junction, which follows a narrow ledge.  One spot was especially narrow, and your foot passes over air that goes down a hundred feet or so.  But, going back up seemed less spooky at this spot.  Soon after the route dropped down to the bed, we were headed back up in order to stay above the Redwall.  Altogether, it took us a bit less than an hour from the Bedrock junction to our destination - a grand viewpoint atop the Redwall, overlooking the Colorado River, South Canyon rapids and Vasey's Paradise, a waterfall draining into the river.  The route does descend to the river, but the winter days are just too short for us to make it to the water's edge.

South Canyon rapids from our
destination atop the Redwall.

Eric rests atop the dry fall in the bed, which must be bypassed.  A nice pool was here, which certainly must taunt hikers when the weather is hot. 

Heading back up the canyon towards the junction of South and Bedrock canyons.  The route bypasses the dry fall shown to the left.

Vasey's Paradise from our
lunch spot on the Redwall.

     We ate lunch here and rested for a bit over an hour, and headed back up the canyon at about 3:15 p.m.  Although we felt like we were making better time coming back, each leg was always a bit slower than when we were coming down.  It must be that our familiarity with the terrain helps make the time pass faster on the return trip.  Still, we knew, with certainty, that we would run out of light before we got back to the top.  We made a valiant effort to get to the spot, before dark, where we would leave the bed and ascend to the rim.  We nearly made it.  We put on our headlamps about five minutes short of this goal.  And, as it got dark, it got cold.  We each had two jackets and both were on for the climb out!

     Coming down this route I noticed two features that made me feel confident about climbing back up at night.  First, there were small cairns practically every 10 to 20 feet along the way; during the day, and in full light, they are certainly redundant, but in the dark they would be, and were, quite valuable.  Second, there was really only one track that people and animals had followed.  The steepness of the route discouraged wandering, so the only ground disturbed was the "trail," making it somewhat easy to spot.

     So, we shuffled on up the route, slow but steady.  It turned out easy to follow (not that we didn't have to look around a lot to see which way to go - we did).  And, I think the spots of exposure felt less threatening in the dark, since we couldn't see them!  While it took us 54 minutes to descend, in the morning, our ascent took us just 67 minutes and we reached the trailhead at 8:03 p.m.

     When we returned to Cliff Dwellers, we were both wanting the same thing - hot cocoa!

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