Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand-Canyon-National-Park-Arizona-USAThank God that every year 4 million tourists crowd the McDonald’s-and-IMAX strip at the Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim gateway. It leaves fewer people to crowd Tuweep (occasionally called Toroweap), the little-known access point to the park’s quiet North Rim, where the canyon is narrow, deep, and silent, but for the Colorado River’s rumbling whitewater. You can drive right to the edge, camp for free next to a 3,000-foot drop, and hike the park’s shortest (and likely steepest) trail to the bottom. But you have to make it there first: Tuweep is at the end of 62.5 miles on Grand-Canyon3unimproved dirt roads. Bring plenty of food and water, check the spare, top off your tank, and let the air down in your tires – tows start in the thousands. Hike the 1.5-mile Lava Falls Trail – a steep, sweltering scramble down loose red basalt spotted with the occasional rattlesnake.
The Lava Falls Trail descends from the north rim of the Grand Canyon just west of the extinct volcano known as Vulcans Throne to the Colorado River, a drop of 2,540 feet over a distance of less than 2 miles. It is particularly strenuous and difficult owing to the lack of shade and water, the steep gradient and the unstable ground – much of the route is across sharp lava blocks and loose scree, but despite these hazards the trip is most exciting, and provides the shortest rim to river route in the national nark. Adding to the obvious dangers is the possibility of meeting rattlesnakes and scorpions, according to the NPS trail guide.

grand-canyon2There is no shelter or other facilities at the trailhead, just a small parking area and a trail register with copies of a useful guide and route map. Only a short section of the path is visible from roads end; it curves down into a reddish-black colored, bowl-shaped depression then drops out of sight over a rocky ledge. The colors are typical of the volcanic landscape of both the north and south sides of the Grand Canyon at this point. It is a gentle 5 minute stroll to reach the first ledge, then the true character of the trail becomes evident as the route follows down a very steep gully, traverses a little way eastwards then begins a long series of switchbacks along a ridge covered with cinders and lava, ending at a flat area of red gravel, about half way to the river. The route is not always easy to follow although it is marked by cairns, which become more necessary in the lower section – the path bends east, follows a secondary ridge for a while then curves back west under a cliff face and into a ravine, even steeper than the upper slopes, and filled with loose scree and unsteady lava blocks. A wrong turn here may lead to a sheer drop-off or risk starting a rock slide.usa2
Cool off in the river, and then trek downstream to watch rafters tackle Lava Falls, the gnarliest rapids in the entire canyon.

The designated route mainly follows the east side of the ravine, which extends almost all the way to the Colorado. Around the river, the temperature is markedly higher than at the rim – maybe by 10°F, and the vegetation is more desert-like, with large barrel cacti and yucca. The noise of the Lava Falls rapids is audible for most of the descent; the falls themselves are reached by walking along the river banks for 200 yards. There are several small sandy beaches, good for paddling and cooling off before the return journey.

A round trip, starting late morning on a hot, sunny August day took me 2.5 hours, or 4 hours including the extra 4 mile walk to and from the junction with the Toroweap Point Road. I had left some water at the trailhead but not taken enough for the hike, and found it best to hurry back and reach the cached supply as quickly as possible. This is certainly a hike for which a good amount of water is needed; there is none available en route as the Colorado water is unsafe to drink unless filtered. The official guide puts the round trip from the trailhead at between 4 and 12 hours.

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Getting there: The road to Tuweep from Fredonia is a 60-mile drive on BLM road #109, but the last three miles are mostly slickrock, requiring a high clearance vehicle.

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