The Soft and The Strong~ Hiking Havasu to Toroweap G.Cyn

Kristen M. Caldon Photo

Backcountry and Remote Locations Imagery
Dec 27, 2012
When my alarm went off Tuesday morning, I found the pipes frozen in my Flagstaff home (this always happens when we get a big winter storm), but I grabbed my pack and headed out the door to pick up my friend Bruce, anyway. If anything, not being able to brush my teeth right away just helped me get started quicker! We had gotten 2 feet of snow in the past 48 hours and I had been nervous about the snow delaying my trip, but the roads weren’t so bad and quite suprisingly the road out to Hualapai Hilltop (my trailhead) was plowed, so there were no setbacks. We arrived at the Hilltop at about 10 am.
Pausing to send off a SPOT© message, Bruce and I mused about my route, possible camping spots, and of course, where the magic might be found. It’s everywhere in the canyon, and if one person has spent enough time in The Grand Canyon finding and catching that magic, it’s Bruce. I felt warm, heading down to search for that magic on my own, with a whole lot of unknown ahead of me. Although my route is made up of other fairly well known routes (Havasu Canyon and Tuckup Route), as far as I know I am the first to connect them on this particular trek in the Canyon. I wolfed down some leftover pizza from the last night and headed on down the trail, winding through the menagarie of mule trains, kids amock, and tourists of all sorts that is so common at the trailhead to Supai. Once I got down the initial switchbacks, I left most of these other hikers behind, and I was able to soak in the beauty of the canyon in relative solitude. Without stopping, I went down through the Supai Village, the campground (which has vastly improved in the past few years!), and down to Mooney Falls.
I stopped at a wonderfully carved ledge of traverine to have a snack and see what the light would do. I’m always looking for these primo break spots, and this one rates high with a sculpted backrest right on the edge of a 190 foot void with nothing but travertine, turquoise water, and a whole lot of air to fill it. To me, the best part of Havasu Canyon is the light bouncing off the tall walls of Redwall limestone, which compliments the unique turquoise waters of Havasu Creek so perfectly. So often the light can be harsh, and very bright, but often in the evening a softness comes over the canyon, revealing so much color and life in the shade.
Below Mooney Falls there are several creek crossings, and I found out right away that the water levels were much higher than I am used to, which forced me to camp a little earlier, and save the big creek crossings for the morning. The next day, I started at first light and had my first crossing right away. After deliberating on whether I should take shoes and pants off to stay a little warmer, I quickly dismissed this. I needed everybit of traction my shoes could offer, and my clothes are quick drying anyway. I got in, and the water rose up to my waist, current pushing me steadily downstream. I was able to keep my footing, luckily, and made it across all the crossings safely. I reached the mouth of Havasu Canyon at the Colorado River at about 8:30 am, which was exactly as I planned. I was relying on a ride from a river trip to travel 7 miles downstream to Tuckup Canyon, where I would continue my hike. But, this time of year there is most likely only one river trip passing a given point in a day so I had to make sure that I caught it whenever it came, that day. I showed up at the ledges soaking wet, shivering, and looking for some sun…but the light was so good when I arrived that I had to take some shots before I dealt with drying out my gear!
I waited around all morning, and most of the afternoon waiting for some boats to turn the corner. I dried my clothes out, sunbathed, swam, ate, drank, and watched fish, relishing in the unseasonably warm temperatures. I imagined scenarios of what could happen WHEN the boats would come. If it looked like they weren’t going to stop, I had a routine of hand gestures to wrangle them in, but when the river trip did come down, they pulled right in and I was saved from what would most likely have been an embarrassing spectacle. I happened to know the trip leader through a lot of friends and co workers in the Canyon, and he offered a ride immediately, but said I’d have to camp with them on the way down as they were planning on passing Tuckup the following day. That was fine with me, as it seemed a happy, energetic group (sometimes that far down the river rivertrips can be in sour moods or on the verge of mutiny, something to be avoided at all costs!).
After a short morning on the river with my new friends, I got dropped off just above the mouth of Tuckup Canyon. Now, if you haven’t been in this canyon, or seen it on a map, I’ll have to tell you now it is huge! I knew that it required some climbing to get up, and it was going to take all day so I set off with little delay. Lower Tuckup Canyon starts with a lot of Bright Angel ledges, narrow traverses, chockstones and other boulders to climb, and pools to wade through. Eventually I fell into a rythym hiking up the canyon, moving fast on flat, gravelly wash bottoms, indispersed with pauses to find my route through boulder piles, and pull myself up dryfalls and other chutes. There were a couple of spots that made me think of many of my friends who are much more experienced climbers than me, and how they might be proud to see me do such “moves”. A little more than 1 1/2 miles up Tuckup is a huge natural bridge made of cemented conglomerates, a true beauty. I had been wanting to see this “arch” for a long time, since a friend gave me a beautiful photo of himself there a few years ago. The Redwall Limestone forms absolutely beautiful narrows in this canyon, which was not only beautiful but also offered the most wonderful shade to cool off in. I exited Tuckup canyon late in the day, with just a 1/2 liter of water left, but 4 more miles to the next spring.
Deciding for a dry camp, I stopped for the night in the Schmutz Spring area with plans for an early start and fresh water in the morning. Although more exposed to the elements, I tend to choose my camps based on the view….this is no exception. Perched up on a hill, the view from my camp gave me a great idea of what lay ahead of me, lots of desert meadow, funnelling downwards onto the vast labyrinth that is the Esplanade, surrounded by towers of the upper Grand Canyon in the distance. I slept well, and headed off in a hurry towards Cottonwood Spring, where I’d refill my containers and have breakfast.
When I got to Cottonwood, I immediately taste tested the water. In researching water sources on my hike, I found out that both of the main water sources (Cottonwood and Willow Springs) are very minerally and are notorious for giving people G.I. issues. The Park recommends drinking water from potholes in this area over the springs, to avoid such gut problems, but the storm that almost stopped my trip from even starting didn’t touch the ground here, leaving almost all of the potholes dry. I got a gallon from the spring, then sat down and ate breakfast, while camelling up so I would be as hydrated as possible. I looked at my map again, and figured that I’d have to move quickly from spring to spring since the potholes were dry. This meant long, hard days with many convoluted miles in between, and I readyied myself for 3 days of tough walking.

After Cottownwood Spring, the high meadows started to fade out, leaving a vast landscape of folded, layered, twisted red Sandstone called The Esplanade. As I trekked further onto the Esplanade, the sun was beating down on me, and I didn’t stop walking much unless I found a rare shady spot. I was heating up well, sweating a lot, losing a lot of precious water. Normally during hot weather I like to stop in the middle of the day, cool off to conserve energy and water, but I had such long distances to travel each day that I felt I couldn’t afford to stop that often.
On the 4th day, I made it to Willow Spring just in time to get fresh water, stretch out, and enjoy my dinner before the sun went down. Willow Spring tastes a heck of a lot better than Cottonwood, but I couldn’t say if it was any easier on my belly! By the time I reached this spring, I was already feeling the effects of the bad water at Cottonwood. I slept well, and headed out on the dusty trail right at first light. I had decided I was going to try and hike out completely that day, no matter how late. I was like a horse heading for the barn, and to make it even better I knew I’d have company and a big salad waiting for me at the Tuweep Ranger Station. As I went along all day, I kept on saying “You can do this, K. You can make it to the road by dark, show up late at the station tonight!” I took the shortcut up and over Big Point, which changed my whole perspective while I was up there. Getting up just a little higher really lets you see the depth of all those canyons you have to contour around and widens your view a bunch giving me the first sight of Toroweap Point and Vulcans Throne (my endpoint).
Well, 16 miles and many hours later, I found myself around the last major obstacle, Cove Canyon. It was on this part of the Tuckup Route that I had severely sprained my ankle in April of 2011, and I was glad to get past that spot. All day as I walked, I was thirsty; but I had to conserve for the long day and many miles before I reached the trailhead. Evening was falling upon me in the desert, the heat was becoming mellow, shadows falling across the stone, and light softening. Coming around a corner, the last view into Cove Canyon came up, the Redwall just lit up by the afternoon sun. I hadn’t taken a single picture all day and there was no option to miss this! I dropped my pack, and shot away, feeling full of the Canyon, empassioned by it’s beauty and energised by it’s mystery. After I put my camera down, I noticed a few potholes right by me…I had been so distracted by the view I didn’t notice!
I bent over the “deepest” looking pothole, put my lips to the surface, and gently sucked in the water. It tasted fine, and had bugs in it (which is a good sign). I got 3 liters of water out of the pothole, and right away started looking for a camp. I was so close to the trailhead (3.5 miles or so), but it was also so close to dark. With water, my decision was easy and I found a fantastic alcove nearby. It was a warm night and I wished that I was out in the open, but clouds had been building all day and I feared getting caught out in the middle of the night. The next morning I was packed, stretched, and ready to go before sunrise.
The Tuckup Route ends with a 3 mile road walk ending just north of the Toroweap Campground. This road was used historically for mining and cattle grazing access on the Esplanade, and is now closed to vehicular travel. Shortly after reaching the “main” road going to Toroweap, I got a ride right up to the Tuweep Ranger Station, where I was met with a big smile from Todd, the Ranger. I spent the rest of the day getting clean, relaxing, and eating all with fantastic views of lower Toroweap Valley.
My last day, I awoke in the cozy Tuweep station and headed out to finish off my hike with the Lava Falls Route. This is a notoriously dangerous route in the Grand Canyon that kills a few people each year. This route drops over the edge of the canyon below Vulcans Anvil, a dormant cinder cone. There are many signs of a once very active volcanic field, one of these major features is a flow of hardened lava which has gone over the canyon rim all the way to the river. It is on this lava flow that the route finds its way down (2,540 feet in 1.5 miles ). At the river is Lava Falls Rapid, one of the biggest and most dangerous rapids in the Grand Canyon. I walked down and watched a few river trips go through, took a swim to cool off, and hiked out before my hair even dried (climbing up is so much easier than descending any day)!
Just like that, before I even knew it, my trip was over. I had made it without any hitches, and although not boring at all, this trip wasn’t one of those epic ones. Just a lot of time, me and The Canyon. And as always, I’m left wanting so much more.

Featured image for home page:


Aug 9, 2007
Another fantastic report! I love this 'hitching a ride' down the canyon thing! I'm going to do a 4-day backpack in the Tuckup area in April so it's great to hear your description of it. Thanks!


Jul 28, 2012
Kristen, simply an amazing TR. that's for sharing!

Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
wnorton @ Southern, UT


In search of Fresh
Oct 17, 2012
Great TR Kristen. You got this shit figured out. Hitching rides cross river makes for epic journeys. I like your style!!!
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