My First Descent Down the New Hance Trail
Updated: Sep 8, 2018
At this point I’ve walked to the Colorado River more times than I can keep track of. My best guess is that it’s been close to 140 times, and most of those descents down the Grand Canyon have taken place in the last few years. It occurred to me today during my first descent down the New Hance Trail to the Colorado River that someday the story of my first canyon hike will be a faded distant memory, but today I still remember the details that matter.
It was ten years ago now, and at that time I was a very different hiker and a very different person. I remember underestimating the canyon and over estimating my hiking ability. I remember thinking that the hike up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon was among the most difficult challenges that I’d ever undertaken in my life. At the time I certainly had no idea that I would go on to hike up and down those trail more than a hundred times in the coming years. And for many years I made no such attempt. It wasn’t until 2009 that my obsession with the Grand Canyon really began, and looking back on that genesis, I wonder tonight how long it will go on.
None of this really has anything to do with my hike today except for the fact that the miles that I put underfoot today reminded me of that first canyon descent, because the New Hance Trail was among the last South Rim trails that I’d yet to complete. I had almost hiked out of the New Hance trail a few weeks back during my first descent down the Grandview trail to Hance Rapids, but I was worried that the trail would be too rugged and that I’d have trouble following it, so I opted to treat the day as a yo-yo hike and never stepped foot on any section of the New Hance.
I’d read over the park service’s description of the New Hance Trail several times, and it had intimidated me, as I’m sure it’s intended to do. The Grand Canyon National Park Service ends up rescuing hundreds of people from below the rim every year, and so it’s in their best interest to dissuade people from hiking trails that are outside of their familiarity. Since I almost always hike alone, I didn’t want to push my luck during that first descent down the Grandview Trail to the river by getting lost on a trail where no one would go looking for me. As such, the New Hance remained a mystery to me until today.
I finished work and drove the two and a half hours to the National Forest right outside of Grand Canyon National Park last night. It blew me away how much temperatures have dropped in the last few weeks. Three weeks ago temperatures at the river were at 108 degrees, and now they’re only reaching 80! That’s almost ten degrees difference per week. Truly autumn is upon us. It’s sad to see the summer coming to a close, but now that I’ve started to think towards a long distance hike in the coming spring I’m somewhat excited to see the passing of days between now and then. Every mile that I put underfoot makes me more sure that this is what I want to do with my future. I want to hike the CDT, and a part of me is even toying with how to make the AT happen in the year after. If I’m able to keep my expenses down, then it might be possible. The AT aside however, I still think that next spring is going to be my starting date for the CDT.
But I digress—as I almost always do.
I slept in this morning because I knew that the air would be cold once I came out of my -20 degree sleeping bag. Wrapped in that down insulated cocoon I slept quite well, but once the sun rose it was next to impossible for me to get to sleep. I can never sleep once the sun’s up. I don’t know if this is a blessing or a curse.
Even having slept in I was able to reach the trailhead for New Hance just before 8am. The air was cold, but I know that it’s only going to get colder as the fall turns to winter in the coming months. Most of my struggle this morning wasn’t the cold however; it was trying to find the trailhead itself. The New Hance is a rarely used access to the river, and few hikers ever see it. As far as I know it’s the only trail down to the Colorado River on the South Rim that is lacking any signage whatsoever. So I ended up driving by the trailhead twice before I was able to actually locate where to park.
I was surprised to see a group of probably 10 other hikers within the first mile of my descent, but after them I wouldn’t see another hiker for the rest of the day. They said that they were headed down, but our talk was short, and they didn’t enquire about my own agenda. I could tell from the size of their packs however that they’d be in the canyon at least over night. From the online postings that I’ve read about people who have hiked the New Hance before me, I suspect that they’ll be below the rim for at least three days and two nights.
The first few miles of trail are indeed rugged, but not nearly as tough as the miles that I covered in the mountains of Colorado last week, and I think that it was partly my experience in Colorado that made me more confident to hike the New Hance. I also spoke with a Park Ranger a few weeks back (the day after my hike of the Grandview Trail) who said that if I was able to navigate the Boucher Trail then I shouldn’t have any trouble with New Hance.
The write ups about New Hacne indicated route finding and crossing rock slides though. This, it turns out is a bit of an over-exaggeration. Yes, there may have been a couple of very small rock slides, but they were nothing like what I was expecting. If anything they were fun opportunities to hop across rocks instead of just following a trail for miles on end. And as for the route finding—it was really about as difficult as the connect the dots activities that we used to do as children. Everywhere where the trail became faint I was able to find cairns that led to the next section of trail.
The start of the trail was indeed steep, but it wasn’t nearly as steep as the mountainous trails of Colorado from last week. So by comparison, I must say that I was comfortable throughout the hike down.
What was weird for me however was the juxtaposition between all the trails that I’ve been hiking in the last month. Three weeks ago I was hiking in 108 degrees in Grand Canyon National Park; the week after that I was hiking 105 degrees in Saguaro National Park; then last week I was hiking the 14,000 foot peaks of Colorado where temperatures were in the single digits and ice was starting to form in the high elevation lakes while snow stuck to the mountains for my entire visit; now I’m back in Grand Canyon and even if temperatures are much cooler than they were when I left, the terrain is still so different than Colorado. It was like a trail version of culture shock. I haven’t had time to acclimate to being back in Arizona, but after today I’m firmly back in the desert and I feel comfortable here like I did before I left.
The first few miles of the New Hance were indeed steep, and I don’t recommend that anyone use the New Hance as their first descent down the canyon. In comparison to the main corridor trails, the New Hance is an entirely different ballgame. But next to the Hermit Trail and the Boucher Trail, the New Hance wasn’t a major increase in difficulty by any means. It’s no steeper than sections of the Grandview Trail in it’s present condition. I wouldn’t want to hike it in the ice and snow, but in the condition that it stands now, it was no problem.
After that steeper section the sun started to break over the southeastern rim, but unlike before I left for my Colorado vacation, the heat was never unbearable. The hottest that it ever reached today was 80 degrees, and if anything I’d call it comfortable.
Following that steep section the trail mellows out a bit and basically follows Red Canyon all the way to the Colorado. If anything, I’d say that those final miles before the Colorado River are among the hardest, but only because the trail isn’t actually a trail—it’s just a dry wash drainage that you follow for a mile or two until you begin to hear the rushing waters of the Colorado River. If anything, I was surprised when I heard that rush of water off in the distance because it was surprising to me that I’d made it down so quickly, but I was reminded then that the New Hance is the shortest trail down to the Colorado River from the South Rim with the exception of the Tonto Trail. It’s hard to compare the two routes though, as they are very very different from one another in all the ways that matter.
I filtered water from the Colorado River, ate a bar, and from there headed up the Tonto Trail towards the Grandview Trail. I toyed with the idea of yo-yo hiking the New Hance today. Doing so would have alleviated my need to hitchhike back to my car after reaching the rim, but I really didn’t want to see the same miles twice in the same day. As such, I took the Tonto trail to the Grandview Trail to the top. This route was much longer than a yo-yo of the New Hance would have been, but it also gave me the opportunity to hike a small section that I had yet to see before.
I’ll spare you the details of hiking out on the Grandview Trail, as I’ve already written about those miles in a previous post. What I will add however is that I was able today to take the last of three approaches up to Horeshoe Mesa that I had yet to see. There are three trails down from the Horseshoe, and on my last hike of Grandview I was able to see the eastern and northern approaches, but by adding a couple of extra miles to my hike today I was able to cross the western approach off my list as well. Now the only sections of trail on the south rim that I have yet to see are the South Bass trail (which requires crossing native american tribal land and paying a fee, the Escalante trail (along the Colorado River) and then about 25 miles of the Tonto Trail. That sounds like a lot, but it pails in comparison to the miles that I have covered. I also spent some time today looking over the maps that I have of the area and considering how I might be able to hike some of the trails on the north side of the canyon. I feel like if I took a 4-5 day weekend I could cover most of them, but now that temperatures are cooling and winter approaches, I doubt that I’ll have the chance to do so within the year.
I didn’t see a single other hiker today after that first mile of the New Hance until I reached the last mile of Grandview. There I ran into a couple who was hiking just for about a mile, and then above them I ran into several dozen people watching the sunset from the rim itself. I ended up having to walk about three miles from Grandview Point towards my car that was parked back at the New Hance Trailhead before finally getting a ride through those last few miles. I was worried that I’d have to walk the road all the way back to my car after the sun had set, as nobody ever wants to pick up a hitch hiker in the dark, but to my surprise, a couple from the area pulled over about an hour after dark and gave me a ride back to my car. They were pleasant and mentioned that they’d been driving around the park for the whole day and had wondered who had left their car there. I told them that they’d found the answer, and after they dropped me off they went on their way.
My overall assessment of the New Hance Trail is that it’s not for beginners into the canyon, but anyone who has some experience in following cairns and hiking somewhat steep trail shouldn’t have any problem with a descent or assent of that trail. In its current condition it’s far easier a hike than the NPS makes it out to be. And linking the New Hance with the Tonto Trail and Grandview Trail is an absolutely wonderful way to spend your day. It could also be done as a 2 or 3 day trip, but the fun goes up when the weight goes down, so for anyone willing to cover 20-30 miles (depending on your approach on the ascent up Horeshoe Mesa), this is a great day hike pending you have the legs for a river to rim assent.