|Rock Garden - Grand Canyon Routes|
Saddle Canyon (west) Route
Re-exploring the Hayduke Segment: 19-23 October, 2017
This Saddle Canyon is the one that goes west from the Muav Saddle of Powell Plateau to form the head of the Tapeats Creek drainage. The route is the beginning of the George Steck Circumambulation of Powell Plateau and has become a segment of the Hayduke Trail (not really a trail). In addition to actually being an entirely off-trail route, it is recommended only as a descent. Essentially, this is a non-technical slot-canyon descent through the Redwall.
This was first published in Grand Canyon Loop Hikes I by George Steck, and the informal history supports that George and his friends were the first to explore this access. Shortly after this was published George organized and guided a Sierra Club trip in September 1990 which I was able to join as a starter for my off-trail adventures. But climate change has narrowed the fall season period when this would be doable.
How to Get There
Enter the Forest Service road system and navigate to the east-west access FS.223 to FS.268/FS.268B and continue to the signed boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. Shortly, this forks right to become Swamp Ridge Road and a long way to the end across from Powell Plateau. Road conditions are fairly good but poorly marked and some published maps are wrong.
Rim Descent Trail
Access begins with the brief descent on the North Bass Trail to Muav Saddle taking the fork west to the cabin. From here, continue descending the slope to join the Saddle Canyon bed in ponderosa forest and head down-creek, initially avoiding the brushy bottom. There is a hint the bison may be coming here in winter.
Upper Saddle Canyon
As the large trees thin out the drainage actually becomes slightly more passable with seasonal runoff (maybe some help from winter grazing) keeping the bed clear of vegetation. When a large side-canyon joins from the north things start to get thick until the bedrock of upper Supai is exposed. Travel is relatively easy with mostly trivial drops and walk-arounds, but the drops do get taller.
The drainage descends into a band of tighter cliffs with three successive drops together where the 3rd is not descendable. The 1st drop is an easy descent with a cairn to the left, the 2nd is a workable pack drop and downclimb. A fully controlled climbing move down is not easy. The next much taller cliffband below is obviously not passable. Track to the left onto a very narrow slope between cliffs. An experienced off-trail hiker will detect sign of travel against the upper cliff. The track becomes indistinct as the slope opens and the object is to ascend to the top of the bench to a ridge between two canyons.
Most hikers will plan on getting through the Redwall on the first day but an intermediate camp on the ridge here can be an option. Doing the Redwall section in the dark would not go well.
The first exposure of Redwall is visible from the top of the ridge looking down into Saddle Canyon and the object is to rejoin the main bed. A visible track with a series of cairns shows the route continuing along the surface to the end of the ridge with a workable break at the end and more sign of travel in the brushy slope below. Continue descending to the obvious saddle of the ridge. Choose one side or the other as you may prefer, north immediately back to the main bed, or south into an adjacent fork to rejoin the bed.
The first outcrop of Redwall is the first of five obstacles and this is an easy walkaround.
The canyon soon becomes a segment of slot where the bed takes the harder direction as it diverts into the northside of the fault alignment. A chockstone is descendable to avoid the tricky downclimb off the rock bench on creek-left. When I was here with George he led the group immediately up onto the opposite shoulder to bypass a series of small muddy pools which may be dry sometimes.
Remarkably, as the slot-canyon goes deeper into the Redwall everything seems to be an easy minor drop or walkaround. Often, the way past a minor obstacle or pool is a friction surface, or a place with slight but useful steps, or an easy unexposed downclimb. Obstacle three is a large chockstone that may be the most physically challenging of the set. The pool below could easily be chest deep or higher at times with a slippery muddy bottom. For our recent track through here there was a log wedged on the right providing a very reasonable descent with a handline of 50-foot webbing doubled around the base of a bushy tree, and we used the webbing for a pack zipline for a quicker transit.
George named obstacle four the slicky-slide, and the three-part slide from above looks much more difficult than it is, but would not be reversible without substantial climbing skills or bringing your own log. Start with an easy slide into a shallow pool and onto the lip of the next drop. The next longer steeper slide is controllable to land in a shallow basin. The third slide is not as steep but more slippery. The slide ends with safe stop on a ledge which at various times may be above or below the waterline. Probe the pool depth and be prepared to shoulder a pack to keep it dry.
The end of the Redwall narrows is not far from the slicky-slide. At the next series of major drops go left along a well-used track to where the slope comes up to meet this shelf. The descending slope is very steep and crumbly with poor footing and easy to roll rocks onto hiking companions below. Go right of the prominent rock below to get to the base of the pouroff if there is water and you need to reach it. Left is the preferred descent.
Lower Saddle Canyon and Tapeats Creek
In 1990 with George we experienced a flash-flood in the night at the Stina junction. Note that all September includes the rainy thunderstorm and flash-flood season, and very sudden and extreme rainfall can bring a large flow from a distant storm -- another good reason not to travel the slot section in late afternoon. With our recent visit there was no water and not much reason to camp here as we did then. Crazy Jug has some nice stream-side camping.
Water disappears soon downstream from Crazy Jug, and there are few obstacles in the creek bottom. Water emerges again at a large boulder jumble in the Tapeats section. Not very much farther Saddle Canyon becomes Tapeats Creek with the major flow coming from Tapeats Cave.
The stream at Tapeats Creek is at the contact with the Supergroup Shinumo Quartzite and flows through a lengthy narrow section to emerge at Thunder River. The stream flow enters at a constrained spot rockwall-to-rockwall with high velocity. This is noplace to be going at springtime runoff, and depending on the season the flow may be a challenge as it was for us recently even in the fall.
On a descent of Saddle Canyon and if the conditions here may not allow safe passage the escape would be to return to Crazy Jug and find the way out to Crazy Jug Point or Big Saddle Camp.
The squeeze between the cliffs can be partly bypassed on the ramp up to a steep downclimb but a careful judgment is still required before entering the flow.
Initially, there will be short bankside sections, then progressively longer alternating sections. Be sure to explore the option to stay out of the channel when you can. The narrows come to an end with a nice overhang camp on streamside right with one more crossing to the left bank and then arriving at the bottom end of Thunder River. Usually it works to cross at the broad area where the streams come together, the same for ether direction of travel through the narrows. A track through the brush on the opposite bank by the confluence goes up to join Thunder River Trail at the lowest switchback.
There will always be some water in the Redwall but not anything you would want to drink except in an emergency. The first source will be Crazy Jug which is reachable in a day at a consistent pace which requires good route-finding and obstacle techniques. From Tapeats Creek there may be more water than you need or want.
Descending this route with an effective rate of travel will require gearing for slot-canyon and swift water conditions as well as experience with solving navigation and obstacle problems. The Redwall descent may not be reversible after passing obstacle three. The slot is divided into three sections with two accesses out of the slot to the south in case weather conditions present a flash-flood risk. This is not for newcomers to southwest canyons. With the time passed since my first visit it was a difficult descent.
Exceptional variety in terrain and physical challenge, along with the beauty of traveling through a slot canyon without need for technical rope-work.
Reference Notes: Hiking Grand Canyon Loops by George Steck.