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Boulder, CO

A guide to the wilderness of the West.

Nankoweap/Kwagunt Creek


Nankoweap/Kwagunt Creek

Derek Bartz

Trip Date: May 22-25
Location: Grand Canyon National Park
Miles: 35?
Vertical: 8,500'-9,000'
Start: Saddle Mountain/Upper Nankoweap Trailhead
Finish: Saddle Mountain/Upper Nankoweap Trailhead
Why Go?  The Nankoweap Trail is regarded as one of the tougher named rim to river trails and sees far fewer people than the corridor trails.  This was a great trip to begin exploring cross country routes in the canyon; the ruins at the mouth of Nankoweap Creek are pretty amazing too.
Permit Required?  Yes, $10 per permit and $5 per person per night (although these rates are increasing to $8 per person per night July 2016).  Either fax permit request to the Backcountry Office or try a walk-in permit.  We didn't have problems getting a walk-in permit despite it being Memorial Day weekend.
Directions:  Two options: the upper or lower trailhead.  The lower trailhead provides better access year round.  The road upper trailhead at Saddle Mountain is buried in snow most of the winter and into spring.  More detailed directions found here.

Memorial Day weekend plans changed in a hurry when the weather forecast for the entire state of Utah was calling for cold and rain the WHOLE weekend.  Heading into a couple canyons with potential swimmer slots didn't seem the most appealing; so we quickly came to the conclusion that we would just have to head further south and down to a lower elevation.  Ok, ok, I GUESS we'll go back to the Grand Canyon AGAIN.  Poor us. 

Joe C was back in town for some more adventure, so I didn't want to disappoint.  Nankoweap Canyon has been on the list and the colder than normal weather made it a perfect destination for this late in the season for the Grand (normal highs for this time of the year in the inner canyon are in the 90's).   We had three nights to spend down in the canyon and decided to also head downriver to Kwagunt Creek, then cross country over Nankoweap Butte to connect us back to Nankoweap Creek proper, all in all about a 35 mile trip.

I made some calls to the Backcountry Office to check on availability around the Nankoweap area and tried to convince them to issue me a permit over the phone, which almost worked.  Had my itinerary not been so "ambitious" in their opinion they would have locked down a spot for me.  Anyways, it's late in the hiking season and "The canyon is wide open" they said, and I was assured we would get a permit.  I knew that it this is prime time for Nankoweap though; hopefully we don't drive 11.5 hours to be denied.

Upon arriving at the North Rim, I was once again discouraged from sticking to my original mileage but I'm used to the overly cautious attitude of the park ranger and took it easy on him, he was only doing his job.  Snow began to fall as we made our way out to the upper trailhead at Saddle Mountain (8,800' in elevation).  After waiting it out in the car, the clouds dispersed and the landscape finally revealed itself.  The view from this high above the canyon miniaturizes the massive abyss in front of  you, the river hidden 6,000' below by a maze of side canyons. 

Upper Nankoweap TH

Aspens line the first few miles of trail as we quickly descend the steep trail through the forest to the top of the redwall, where you make a long traverse out to Marion Point and eventually Tilted Mesa.  A couple more rounds of storms pass through as we make our way the 14.5 miles down to Nankoweap Beach. 

In the morning we visit the famous granaries located in the cliffs above Nankoweap Rapids.  This stretch of river is as scenic as any.   The soaring red walls of Marble Canyon rise abruptly above the river banks, yet the canyon has a light, airy feeling to it as opposed the dark character the canyon takes on further down river in the Inner Gorge.   The weather continued to threaten and grey skies stuck overhead most of the day.  We welcomed the weather though, the exposed stretch alongside the river would have been unpleasant to say the least on a 90 degree day.  I was surprised at how well worn the use trail was, making passage down river fairly easy.  We took our time time making the five miles to our next camp on the beach at the mouth of Kwagunt Creek and had the afternoon exploring the area a bit. 

Day 3 was the highlight of the trip.  My numerous trips down in the Grand thus far have all stuck to named trails/routes; and I was excited to head off trail.  We headed up Kwagunt Creek, questioning if there was actually water as all my sources had indicated.  About a mile up the dry creek bed turned into a trickle, and eventually a strong flow.  Little sections of narrows, limestone benches, and wildflowers kept things interesting.  Kwagunt Creek is worth the extra miles. 

Navigation to the saddle between Nankoweap Butte and Nankoweap Mesa was easy (we ended up heading to the saddle west of Nankoweap Butte, but it is just as easy to go to the east side).  There are some really cool rock formations and "multi colored moon dust" along the fault line that shouldn't be missed; one of the highlights of the trip.  At the saddle I dropped my pack and ran up the last few hundred feet to the top of Nankoweap Butte.  Lots of choss and talus requiring crawling on all fours and grey skies from the top, but nice to get a summit in.  The rest of the day was spent picking our way back toward Nankoweap Creek, and then beginning the ascent back out; eventually stopping for the night at the top of Tilted Mesa.  Other than a faint rainbow in the morning, no real luck with weather for us this trip but this could be an great spot to watch the sunrise/sunset.  A couple more thousand feet of climbing in the morning and we were back at the car.  The views from Saddle Mountain on the return trip were amazing.  Vermilion Cliffs to the North, the Painted Desert stretching out to the East, and the San Francisco Peaks loomed to the South; awesome way to end the trip.