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Nankoweap Trail - Grand Canyon National Park

Summary: According to Hiking the Grand Canyon, by John Annerino, the Nankoweap Trail was constructed by John Wesley Powell & others in 1882 so that a geologist on the trip could study the rock layers (other fun Nankoweap facts can also be found in this publication).
At any rate, the Nankoweap Trail is a north rim backpacking route to the river in the Marble Canyon area of the Grand Canyon. The hike offers great views and a chance to visit Anasazi storage graneries in a remote wilderness setting. Unless you are planning an aggressive hike out from the creek, it's probably a good idea to cache water at either the Tilted Mesa or Marion Point campsites described below. Be aware that the trail is narrow in places and contains some exposure that will be made more difficult if the trail is wet or icy. Also be aware that this trail lies directly in the flight path of the air tour companies - the whine of aircraft is present almost constantly during day light hours.
Directions: You can start this hike from either the Buffalo Ranch Road or Saddle Mountain Trailhead. The Buffalo Ranch Road Trailhead lies at a lower elevation, which offers several advantages: the approach road is more reliable during winter weather, and though you will be faced with a good climb to reach the official start of the Nankoweap Trail, it will be all down hill at the end of the hike when you are most tired. The author started this hike at Buffalo Ranch Road.
Buffalo Ranch Road Trailhead: Drive on Highway 89A to between mile posts 559 & 560 to the sign for the well graded, dirt House Rock Buffalo Ranch Road (FR #8910, note: this road was formerly labeled FR #445 & the directions you receive from the Park Service with your permit persist with this naming convention). Head south on #8910 and drive for about 28 miles until you reach the sign for Saddle Mountain Trail (located on the right).
Saddle Mountain Trailhead: Take Highway 67 south from Jacob Lake to FR #22, turn left (east) and continue to FR #610. Follow #610 to its end & the trailhead (these directions are from the Park Service - don't blame me for their accuracy).
Road Conditions: Passenger Car (if roads are dry)
Navigation: Easy
Length: 29 miles round trip
Date Hiked: November, 2002
Weather Conditions: Cool & sunny with cold nights
Required Skills:
Hike Description: From the Saddle Mountain Trailhead, simply begin your descent on Trail #57. It's three miles to the official start of the Nankoweap Trail.
From Buffalo Ranch Road Trailhead, begin your hike behind the Saddle Mountain Trail sign. Follow the old road as it ascends moderately through a juniper forest. You'll have views to the east in this section of Marble Canyon, Eminence Break & the Shinumo Alter. Soon you will reach a sign for Saddle Mountain Trail #31, #57 to Marble Canyon and Mankoweap (with a capital 'M', I guess that's close enough for government work). Just past the sign the path descends into a shallow ravine where Trail #31 branches left up the other side. Our path continues on #57, which heads right, directly up the dry ravine (this may not seem intuitive, since the trail appears to head directly away from Marble Canyon - you are on the right path though). As you continue up canyon, the trail becomes steeper and steeper until you eventually top out at a saddle and a signed junction and the Grand Canyon NP boundary. Trail #57 continues right to head up to FR #610, the Nankoweap Trail begins on your left (3.5 miles). A short stroll on the Nankoweap will bring you to the edge of the Canyon. From here, the path descends a short distance through the Supai formation, then begins winding its way east just below the Esplanade Sandstone. It's brushy at first, but this eventually clears. There is no way to get lost in this section since you'll have a cliff on your left and a drop off on your right. The trail is narrow in a few sections, and at one point in particular (on the way to Marion Point) the trail becomes about 6" wide for a short stretch. There are good hand holds & the trail was dry when the author was here, so I did not find this section troublesome. If you have a fear of heights or if the path is wet or icy (or you are wearing high heels or roller skates) this section may prove difficult. Soon after this section, you will round Marion Point, a large promontory that separates two upper Nankoweap tributaries. You can see a very nice campsite located 20' off the trail on the point (5.5 miles). The path then winds its way north into a side canyon before continuing east and descending to Tilted Mesa (just before reaching the mesa, there are several more good possibilities for campsites - 8.5 miles). The trail bends right and begins dropping steeply off the mesa through the red wall. There is one climb down at the beginning of this descent near a tree where you may wish to pass packs. The red wall descent is long, steep and gravel covered. Take care (baby steps are a good idea to avoid building up a lot of momentum) through this section. The gravel will slip and slide under your feet, making a fall a real possibility. The trail contours along the side of Tilted Mesa, eventually reaching a series of rounded hills that aid your descent to the creek bed. When you finally reach the canyon floor, the path levels out, though it becomes a bit faint in sections as it travels through the black bush then descends into the drainage of Nankoweap Creek. The creek bed itself is not particularly pretty, but there is flowing water in the stream bed and several good campsites under the cottonwood trees (11.5 miles). There is no formal trail between here and the river, but you can't get lost. Simply head down stream, there are sections of use trail along one side of the creek or the other. As you enter the wide mouth of the Nankoweap delta, look for some prominent trails on the right side of the canyon (14.5 miles). These trails (made mostly by river rafters) lead down to river side campsites and up to the often visited graneries (the beach at the mouth of the creek appeared to be very rocky, better camp sites are likely to be found on the beaches down river). To visit the graneries, simply stay to the right at any trail junctions. It's a steep climb, but the ruins and the views are worth it. When ready, return the way you came (29 miles).
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and his wife completed this hike as a 2 day backpacking trip from the Buffalo Ranch Road Trailhead. The first day we hiked 6 hours to camp at Nankoweap Creek (caching a gallon of water at Tilted Mesa for the following day). The next day we hiked down stream to the river and graneries (4 hours round trip), then picked up our packs and hiked back up to the camp at Marion Point (5 hours). The next day we hiked the remaining distance to our car at Buffalo Ranch Road (3 hours).
Maps: Trails Illustrated - Grand Canyon National Park
Books:  Hiking the Grand Canyon - John Annerino
Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau
- Michael Kelsey
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.
The most narrow section on
the Nankoweap Trail.
The Little Nankoweap drainage
and Tilted Mesa.
Still descending. Nankoweap Creek.
Anasazi graneries.