By Michael Lanza
The New Hance Trail starts out hard, and then gets really tough. The rugged footpath drops off the South Rim into the Grand Canyon like a ball rolling off a table—4,422 vertical feet in 6.5 miles from the rim to the Colorado River. Most of that relief comes in the first five miles, as the trail wiggles through more switchbacks than a squirrel racks up in a year of crossing streets. Geology magnifies the unmaintained path’s grueling character: It drops over hundreds of knee-jarring, quad-jellying ledges two to three feet high, which can seem endless to someone carrying a backpack.
I imagine it seems especially endless to someone who stands barely more than four-and-a-half feet tall.
I watch my 10-year-old daughter, Alex, wearing her backpack, down-climbing or simply jumping off ledges two-thirds her height. She does this while traversing sections of narrow trail with sheer drop-offs—no doubt inspiring for her, just as for me, thoughtful reflection on how far one could tumble if one tripped. Still, her only reaction is to occasionally furrow her brow at the biggest ledge drops—as if wondering how some trail builder could have concluded that this was a sensible route for people to travel on foot. Or maybe she’s wondering why her father would have thought that.
Alex and I have come to the Grand Canyon in the first part of November to backpack 15 miles over three days, from the New Hance Trailhead to the Colorado River and back up to Grandview Point. We’re part of a small parade of 11 people, including two other families: our friends Mark and Lisa Fenton and their son, Max, 18, and daughter, Skye, 15, plus Max’s budding Ryan, 18, all from outside Boston; and Carl and Debby Schueler and their daughters Margy and Ellie, age 13 and 10, from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Although our distance seems short for three days, the biggest lie ever told in the Grand Canyon is: “That’s not far to hike.”
Hours slip past and our group spreads out. Alex and I play word games to help take our minds off the trail’s unkind treatment of our leg muscles. We gradually descend deep into the belly of Red Canyon, an often-dry defile that the New Hance Trail follows to the Colorado River. Sheer walls of cream-colored and vividly orange and red rock soar thousands of feet above us, revealing geological layers known as the Supergroup, representing hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history. Some of the oldest known fossils in the world are found in the Bass Limestone layer.
Roughly halfway down the New Hance Trail, the views open up, spanning a maze of stone skyscrapers separated by vertiginous side canyons—a prospect at once incomprehensibly vast, and yet constituting just a fraction of the entire Grand Canyon.
The November sun hovers just above the canyon rim when Alex and I walk into the camping area beside the Colorado River. We find an empty tent site a minute’s stroll from the river, where we’ll sleep soundly to the constant, gravelly roar of Hance Rapids. Mark—who has taken many very long hikes with me, including a one-day, 44-mile, 11,000-foot hike across the Grand Canyon and back—comes up to me and says with a grin, “Can you believe how hard that was for just six miles? I feel like I hiked 20!”
A travel writer describing his trek down the New Hance Trail in 1904 wrote: “‘On foot,’ however, does not express it, but on heels and toes, on hands and knees, and sometimes in the posture assumed by children when they come bumping down the stairs… The pitch for the first mile is frightful… and to our dismayed, unaccustomed minds the inclination apparently increases, as if the canyon walls were slowly toppling inwards.”
Alex would describe it slightly differently. Well after this trip, she will tell me that she remembers “the first day being very long, and we played (the word game) Hink Pink walking down it. Then I remember there was a place where there was a rock, then a wall, then a rock, then a wall, and we had to jump down all of those.”
Sometimes, the perspective of a 10-year-old brings sharper clarity to the world.
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The Colorado River
Morning arrives cool but not too cold. The first half of November is a wonderful time to hike in the Grand Canyon, despite the short daylight hours; winter generally does not arrive until later in the month or early December. There are far fewer people here, and days are often surprisingly mild, especially deep in the canyon, where temperatures rise into the 60s during the day. It’s the rare example of a time in a popular national park when you find a convergence of perfect weather and no crowds.
Once the sun crests the canyon rim, almost a vertical mile above us, the temperature rises rapidly—and Alex emerges from the tent. An experienced backpacker, she knows that breakfast tastes better when you’re not shivering.
She and I hit the trail by mid-morning, just ahead of the others. But before long, the teenagers overtake and pass us. This pattern repeats itself each day of this trip: We spread out on the trail, driven mostly by the teenagers setting a torrid pace and their parents trying to not fall too far behind, while 10-year-old Ellie makes a colossal effort to keep up.
So Alex and I see the others briefly during the day, and spend hours on the trail together, just the two of us. We stop to take photos or occasionally sit down to focus on our parallel goal of seeing how much chocolate one parent-child team can consume on a three-day backpacking trip. (While I do my best, Alex carries us in this effort, far eclipsing my consumption—especially relative to body weight. When it comes to sugar tolerance, my daughter stands in category all her own. At breakfast in our hotel’s restaurant before we hit the trail the first morning, she threw down the gauntlet, plowing through a cinnamon roll nearly the size of my head. I knew I was no match for that.)
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For Alex and me, this is our annual “Girl Trip.” A loosely named tradition we have maintained for some years, it’s something we look forward to every year—partly because we get out in the wilderness, but mostly because we get a big dose of one-on-one time together, uninterrupted by the myriad electronic and other distractions of civilization (homework, soccer schedule, music lessons, job). So she and I get to hang out with our friends in camp and gorge on hours of exclusive, father-daughter time on the trail.
We climb high above the inner gorge of the canyon onto the Tonto Plateau, passing through a garden of boulders as big as buses. We’re following a small piece of the roughly 70-mile-long Tonto Trail. The longest trail in the Grand Canyon, it traverses a broad, gently undulating shelf about halfway between the rims and river, offering possibly the most expansive views in the canyon, from both rims to the brown river far below us.
We reach a spot where the plateau gets sucked out from under us like water going down a drain: the rim of Hance Creek Canyon. Even this tributary canyon is several hundred feet deep, so we have to follow its eastern rim a distance upstream, cross to its western rim, then reverse direction for a comparable distance downstream—walking far to not get very far.
Dark, crumbly rim rock has eroded into spires and detached pillars. Near the crossing, we look down at glossy, red and black rock and trees lending green to the stark landscape. Hance Creek trickles along the canyon bottom, where some backpackers have pitched tents. (I decide on the spot that this gorgeous oasis, which receives precious and rare shade from close, soaring walls on both sides for most of each day, belongs on my list of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past.)
After we have walked around this side canyon, I point across to the spot on the opposite rim, just a few hundred feet away, where we stood more than two hours ago. Alex tells me, “That was stupid. They should have just built a bridge there.” Some matters of perspective are easy enough even for children to discern.
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What does this place look like to a 10-year-old? Does she have a sense of the scale of it? She’s done a school report on the Grand Canyon, so she knows it’s big by the numbers: 277 miles long, averaging a mile deep, spanning 1,900 square miles or 1.2 million acres, our 11th-largest national park and fourth-largest outside Alaska.
But the scale of this place boggles even the minds of adults, never mind a 10-year-old. Alex asks me whether the Grand Canyon is bigger than Boise, the city where we live. I tell her the Grand Canyon would actually fill up a pretty big chunk of Idaho. She silently contemplates that fact. Some mental pictures take a very long time to draw—and when it comes to a natural phenomenon like the Grand Canyon, we may not have enough mental art supplies to finish the picture.
This is actually Alex’s second visit to the Grand Canyon—not bad for a 10-year-old. Her first backpacking trip here came a week after she turned seven, when our family and a couple of friends backpacked 29 miles in four days from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead in the last week of March—a time when winter still forcefully occupies the canyon rims.
On that trip’s first day, we traversed narrow, exposed stretches of trail treacherous with ice, with me at times guiding each kid individually—our son, Nate, was nine—through the most dangerous sections. On the last day of that trip, we hiked eight miles and 4,000 feet uphill, most of that on the relentless ascent of the South Kaibab Trail. At one point in mid-afternoon that day, when we spied the South Rim—our destination—still a thousand feet above us, Alex looked up and asked me, “Is that the South Rim?” When I said it was, she responded with words that have undoubtedly sprung from the lips of many adults on that footpath: “It’s too far.”
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By late afternoon, the shadow of Horseshoe Mesa falls over Alex and me as we hike up a side canyon toward tonight’s campsite atop the mesa. We stop at the side path to Page Spring, and Alex waits with our packs while I take our filter and water bladders, plus a 10-liter dromedary, to fill them at the spring so we’ll have enough water for dinner, breakfast, and tomorrow morning’s hike up to the South Rim.
Then, with my pack newly loaded down with about 27 pounds of sloshing liquid sustenance, we slog a little more slowly up the steepening trail. We pass the entrance to an old mine and rusting equipment that dates back more than a century, before the national park’s creation, to when copper was mined from Horseshoe Mesa by Last Chance Mine owner Peter Berry, the person who first built the Grandview Trail.
As we ascend the steep switchbacks toward Horseshoe Mesa, we see Mark and Carl coming down the trail toward us. They had dropped their packs and their families off in campsites on the mesa and doubled back to offer help with our packs. But we’re close enough to camp that I don’t bother stopping to off-load some weight, and Alex proudly follows my lead, not asking one of them to take her pack. Instead, she chugs up the trail ahead of the three old guys. Exaggeratedly breathing heavily, I call to Alex, “If you’re having trouble… (gasp) keeping up with me… (huff) I can understand… (puff) because I’m a professional backpacker… (wheeze) and you’re just a little kid.” She chirps, “I’m fine!” and picks up her pace.
Horseshoe Mesa protrudes from an almost sheer, half-mile-high wall below the canyon’s South Rim like a forearm and a hand making a peace sign. A thousand feet above the Tonto Plateau and 2,500 feet below Grandview Point at the rim, the mesa and its campsites are a popular destination for dayhikers and backpackers because it offers a luxury box view of the world’s most spectacular hole in the ground.
Alex and I cook dinner—I cook, she supervises—as a calm evening falls and stars riddle a clear sky.
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