It doesn't take long before Nankoweap plays tricks with your head. The genuine Nankoweap, the real deal, starts when you see the sign welcoming you to Grand Canyon National Park. That takes awhile to reach. Before that the path is a national forest trail, officially called Saddle Mountain Trail 57. This preliminary trail is a rigorous romp in an alpine forest studded with aspen. It offers a compelling vista of much of Northern Arizona from over 8000 feet in elevation. Saddle Mountain Trail 57 is lovely and dramatic but everything before Nankoweap is foreplay.
Nankoweap Trail starts before you reach the trailhead bulletin board. It's a last-chance warning. After that you head right over the rim. Then things get instantly interesting. It's steep and rocky, more a controlled slide than a hike. As we skidded down I heard myself ask, "How the hell am I going to get back up this thing?" I said this aloud. Soon we slid down to a gray log that has been laid into the outside edge of the trail. To our wonder, it was propping it up and holding back loose rock. This dead, old tree was the only thing keep the rocks, the trail—and everyone on it—from tumbling down off the edge. That edge went over and down about 1000 feet. I learned, at this moment, that it's best to be looking straight ahead at the meager trail for most of the hike. Looking over the edge was not an option.
The steep and craggy descent soon settled onto a great ledge of red rock known as the Supai Group. This formation has eroded unevenly and is advantageous for trailblazing because of its myriad shelves and ledges. One can hike along the Supai Group on many trails in the canyon—but nothing quite like this. The trail in front of me was of a loose and crumbly, red gravel. It was about a foot wide and slanted downward towards the edge. It was so faint that I could only see it for about a hundred feet. Then it blended into the drama of the cliff. The only way to do this was to put one foot carefully in front of the other. I found a kind of tunnel vision from within. Focus was now akin to survival.
Test and step. Test and step. I gained a tentative confidence as we wound our way along the endless traverse. The trail is beyond anything I'd ever seen—by several magnitudes—but I knew it was going to get worse. We hadn't gotten to the Scary Spot yet and I knew it was coming. I realized from the YouTube video that this famous spot of Nankoweap was in the red, Supai Group, exactly and precisely where I was. As we inched our way past every blind corner I figured it will be right there. Thus far we didn't see it and that made me nervous.
The ranger at the North Rim station told us the day before that they'd made the Scary Spot less scary. A crew went up and leveled things out a bit. What he didn't tell us is that there are so many other frightening spots in the trail that the Scary Spot is sort of a non-factor in the overall fright level. We hadn't yet found the scary spot but I was pretty much scared. But, each step seemed manageable, as long as I didn't think too far ahead—as long as I didn't think about the Scary Spot.
The red-rock traverse went on and on and then on some more, for many miles. The trail faces south and therefore there was no shade, save a gnarly, old pinyon tree every half mile or so. As morning blazed into afternoon the temperature soared past 100 degrees. The dark rocks absorbed the heat and then radiated it back out like an oven. I was paying so much attention to the edge that I paid little attention to my water supply. I kept cool by drinking more water. Then there it was ahead, like an illusion in the shimmering heat. The Scary Spot. I took a slurp from my Camelbak reservoir—and gulped.
To be continued…