Escalante Route Grand Canyon | Daring Backpack Grand Canyon 2024

Looking for a comprehensive trip report on the Escalante Route Grand Canyon? Here, Flagstaff resident Ailin McCullough with solid long-distance backpacking experience, takes you along this daring backpack Grand Canyon.

His detailed Escalante Route Trip Report might be exactly what you’re looking for! 

Escalante Route Trip Report

Submitted by Ailin McCullough

Hiking a few hundred feet above the Colorado River, barely able to hear Tower of Power’s cover album of James Brown classics over the roar of the wind, I cursed the person who first romanticized the idea of ‘wind in your hair.’

While I normally never backpack without a baseball cap, I had taken it off and attached it to my pack’s hip belt so as not to lose it to the canyon. My hair flapped in my face, obscuring my vision and tickling my nose as I traversed a narrow trail on exposed side canyons, snaking my way westward with the river by my side.

Thankfully, on a route described by the National Park Service as “requiring a bit extra” from hikers, the relentless wind was the worst of it. The air was crisp and the wind cold, but I refused to stop to layer up. It just felt good to be out there.

Table of Contents

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Overview of the Escalante Route

looking down into a red walled canyon from the Escalante Route Grand Canyon with a wide, green river flowing at its bottom
Colorado River from before Cardenas Creek | Photo by Ailin McCullough

In December of 2023, I completed the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon as a two-day/one-night hike. The Escalante Route or Escalante River Route, generally refers to a hike that connects the Tanner Trail with the New Hance Trail.

Some backpackers, however, extend their Grand Canyon hike slightly by exiting via the Grandview Trail. The Escalante Route gets its name from the Escalante Trail, a ‘trail’ that traverses the Colorado River about 12 miles between the Tanner and New Hance Trails.

Parts of the hike within this section involve hiking through narrow side canyons, bouldering hoping through tamarisk and a short mandatory Class 4-ish scramble up a feature called the Papago Wall.

Distance: ~24 miles via New Hance; ~31 miles via Grandview.

Water: The only source of water for most of the Escalante Route is the Colorado River itself. Be prepared to filter silty water. Bring an ultralight bucket or cut-off gallon jug as well as alum powder to let sediment settle before filtering. Sometimes, if exiting via New Hance, there may be water in the lower sections of Hance Creek, but do not rely on this.

Permits: Overnight backcountry permits must be obtained from the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center. As of 2024, these permits are issued online via Recreation.gov. For permit information and questions, visit

Logistics: This is a point-to-point Grand Canyon hike. If traveling with someone, shuttle cars between trailheads. If traveling alone, stick your thumb out and try your best to score a ride with nice tourists!

Initial Preparations for the Escalante Route Grand Canyon

hand holds National Park Service permit for Escalante river trail in front of backpack with a red arrow pointing to text: "Aggressive itinerary"
Permit with "Aggressive Itinerary" warning | Photo by Ailin McCullough

As a Flagstaff resident and avid backpacker, I have spent numerous days and nights in the Grand Canyon. Most of my backpacking in the Grand Canyon, however, has been spent using the Tonto Trail to connect other trails along the South Rim.

So, I decided it was high time to begin exploring some of the more rugged trails in the Grand Canyon; the Escalante Route seemed like a solid place to start.

Admittedly, this hike was somewhat last minute. After a delayed realization that I had two back-to-back days off work, I faxed in a permit application to the Park Service and began researching the route a bit.

The Reputation of the Escalante Route Grand Canyon

I quickly realized that the Escalante Route seems to have a reputation among many hikers and backpackers. According to various trip reports as well as the NPS itself, significant route finding, exposure, and even some Class 4 scrambling awaited me.

Soon enough, I received an email that the Backcountry Information Center had approved my Escalante Route Grand Canyon permit, complete with an “Aggressive itinerary!” label slapped onto it.

A few days later in the early hours of the morning, I left for the park. Coffee mug in hand, I wound my way north on Highway 89A toward the ‘Big Ditch.’

Part I: Tanner Trail

young man with wide eyes and cold nose wears hoodie and looks at camera before backpacking Grand CAnyon - cedar tree behind him
Ailin McCullough captures a cold selfie at the South Rim before hiking in

Entering Grand Canyon National Park through the East Entrance, I arrived at Lipan Point around 8 am. With four liters of water in tow, I changed into my hiking clothes and started down the trail.

It was far colder and windier than I would have liked, but I shrugged it off, knowing that as I got below the rim a bit, it would likely ease up. As I navigated between patches of snow and ice, however, something felt off.

A wave of frustration came over me when I realized that I left my stove, pot (containing that night’s dinner), and lighter in my car.

Famous Last Words While Backpacking Grand Canyon: ‘At least I got the mistakes out of the way early’

Kicking myself, I threw off my pack, dropped my poles, and power-hiked my way back up to Lipan Point. After the false start, I laughed to myself: “At least I got the mistakes out of the way early.”

The Tanner Trail is unique compared to other trails on the South Rim as it doesn’t always follow a large side canyon toward the river. In fact, at times, the Tanner Trail heading ‘down’ actually involves traversing ridges and climbing plateaus.

It offers beautiful sweeping views of the eastern sections of the Grand Canyon, with the river coming into view far earlier than one might expect. Large protrusions of sandstone emerge to the east as one approaches the final descent, providing unparalleled opportunities to shout nonsense into the void and receive satisfying layers of echoes.

It was about here that my earlier comment came back to bite me. Stopping briefly to have a snack, I decided to adjust the top strap of my new pack.

In a comically stupid series of events, the clip on the strap slid onto the ground, and as I bent over to pick it up, I tripped. Instead of grabbing it with my hand, I stepped on it with my foot, shattering it with a sad little crunch.

I was once again frustrated but thankful that it was a relatively minute issue with an entirely replaceable piece of hardware. My annoyance quickly faded, however, as I descended the last steep section of trail and found myself at the beautiful Tanner Beach.

Part II: Traversing the Colorado River

Slot in Seventy-Five Mile Canyon | Photo by Ailin McCullough

As I made the westward turn from Tanner Beach onto the ‘official’ Escalante Trail, the nature of the hike shifted a bit.

Because I had previously hiked down the Tanner Trail with my friends Chris and Ross last year, I was now entering uncharted territory for myself. Yet, while I expected the trail to become in-creasingly less obvious, there remained a very clearly defined path of boot-track to follow.

Soon, I began climbing, the route carrying me a few hundred feet above the Colorado with sweeping views both up and downriver. Boaters far below me appeared as ants, navigating their way through swift rapids that–from my perspective–didn’t look so scary.

The wind began to pick up as I approached the first of three major diversions from the river: a large unnamed drainage cutting deep toward the bottom of the canyon.

Strong gusts and high sustained winds would continue for a majority of the day, though thankful-ly, it was never much more than an annoyance. A narrow footpath littered with boulders separat-ed me from a steep slide to the bottom of the drainage, but the exposure didn’t give me pause; the route was obvious and the terrain stable.

Eventually, I crossed the drainage of Cardenas Creek. I followed it down to a small beach by the river, where kicked off my shoes, relishing in the absence of the wind.

But the Canyon continued to call. I had miles to make, and the crux of the route was yet to come.

 

Seventy-Five Mile Canyon on the Escalante river route

I climbed up from Cardenas Creek and soon began the second major diversion from the river: Seventy-Five Mile Canyon. Hikers must traverse above this deep, narrow canyon until they reach a small pour off where they can enter the canyon proper.

From there, they hike through the slot canyon until it widens as it feeds into the river. The pour off is a short and mellow scramble—hikers shorter than about six feet may want to drop or lower their pack before hopping down.

The slot section was incredible. There is nothing quite like surrounding yourself with towering canyon walls to offer lessons in feeling small.

Reaching Seventy-Five Mile Beach, my sights turned toward getting up and down the Papago Wall and slide before dusk. Traversing the river once more, the light started to soften and glimmer on the canyon walls in that magical Grand Canyon way.

A team of boaters were setting up camp on the beach below me, sharing beers and laughs that echoed down the river. The Papago Wall soon emerged from deep within the river, jutting into the water and forcing hikers to scale it to avoid a frigid and swift swim.

Not pausing for more than a moment to make sure I knew what line I should take, I began climbing. It soon became clear that the infamous Class 4 climb was nowhere near as scary as I had heard. It is certainly exposed, but hikers are rewarded with very generous ledges every three or four moves.

I climbed the first exposed section in less than a minute. A brief traverse following obvious cairns ensued until I reached the “tight squeeze,” a spot where hikers must shuffle their way between two large boulders to reach the true top of the climb.

Next was the slide, a talus and scree-filled gully that brings hikers back down to the river. The descent was steep and the rocks loose, but I made it down unscathed and reached camp at Hance Rapids only a few minutes later, just as the sun started to disappear behind the canyon walls.

Dinner was enjoyed by headlamp and while I shared my campsite with a number of hungry mice friends, the sound of the churning rapids soundly lulled me to sleep.

Part III: The New Hance Trail

rapids in wide green-colored river extend bank to bank as tall red rock cliffs rise up in the background reflecting the golden light of the sun's last beams
Golden Hour at Hance Rapids | Photo by Ailin McCullough

Ironically, the New Hance Trail was the most difficult section of my hike—considerably more so than anything I encountered while on the official Escalante Trail.

Hikers start out by making their way up Red Canyon, the drainage that feeds into the river at Hance Rapids. Eventually, the trail splits from the drainage and begins climbing steeply toward the Rim.

Much of the ‘trail’ after diverging from Red Canyon isn’t much of a trail at all. Steep climbing, bushwhacking, some light scrambling, and considerable route-finding all characterize this route out of the Canyon.

Paper or digital map is highly suggested

It is beautiful and epic, featuring some of the best primitive campsites I’ve seen in the park; however, due to its rugged nature, I would not recommend it to less experienced backpackers. Using a paper or digital map is highly suggested.

Despite the difficulty of the New Hance Trail, it flew by. I listened to music most of the way out, immersing myself in the sound of Credence Clearwater Revival and my own breathing and fully experiencing the Canyon around me.

When I emerged from the woods at the Rim and intersected Desert View Drive, it was only just past noon.

With my right hand out, thumb up, and half a bag of Cheez-Itz in my left, I started the seven-mile road walk back to my car. As each car passed me, I became less optimistic – until one of said cars turned around and came back to meet me.

Two National Park Service employees (Death Valley and Channel Islands National Parks) told me to throw my pack in the trunk and hop in. They had been in the Grand Canyon for a training event and were returning to California.

One of them had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the year before me, reminding me that even when not on a long-distance thru-hike, the best part about backpacking will always be the people met along the way.

Soon enough, I was back in my car. Coffee mug in hand again and feeling grateful for both my body and the landscape around me, I made my way back toward Flagstaff. Pizza and beer were waiting for me, and they certainly couldn’t stand to wait much longer.

Escalante Route Takeaways

young man in blue hiking shirt, backpack and hat stands on trail near edge of Escalante Route Grand Canyon
Author Ailin McCullough backpacking in the Grand Canyon

The Escalante Route deserves most of its hype. It offers some of the best views of the Colorado River and the Supergroup in the park (of those that can be enjoyed on foot, at least.)

Yet intermediate and experienced backpackers will likely find that the hype surrounding its difficulty is relatively inflated.

The ‘extra’ that the Escalante Route requires

(1) more attention paid to route-finding and footing on a few short sections and

(2) more logistical considerations regarding water management and transportation.

I also want to make clear that these are my takeaways and perspectives. Much of the Escalante Route Grand Canyon —as with any trail or hike—will primarily depend on one’s own experience, preferences and comfort level.

I have a large amount of hiking and backpacking experience, primarily on numerous long-distance thru-hikes; as such, I found certain aspects of the hike, such as route-finding, more straightforward than others might.

Always do your research and assess the hike based on your own experience. But don’t be too intimidated by the Escalante Route, either! Chances are, if you’re considering trying it, you’re at least a somewhat experienced hiker.

I also recommend exiting the Canyon via the Grandview Trail if you have the time for some extra miles, as it is a far easier and less rugged trail than New Hance.

Excited about the Escalante Route?

Excited about the Escalante Route? Start your permit process here: www.recreation.gov/permits/4675337.

Click the “Check Availability” link in Blue underneath “Available Permits” in order to search for the correct Backcountry Zones where you can camp on the Escalante Route.

Not quite ready for or interested in the Escalante Route?

Not quite ready for or interested in the Escalante Route? No worries! You could spend a lifetime exploring the Grand Canyon and still see very little of all it has to offer. Other great backpacking in the Grand Canyon routes include the following:

  1. Bright Angel Trail to Hermit Trail via the Tonto Trail (23 miles)
  2. Grandview Trail to South Kaibab Trail via the Tonto Trail (27 miles)
  3. Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers via the Tanner and Beamer Trails
  4. Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers via the Beamer Trail

Regarding the above, it is important to note that the Bright Angel Trail, as well as a large portion of the Tonto Trail between South Kaibab and Plateau Point, are closed until approximately April 2024 for the Trans-Canyon Waterline Project.

Visit https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/grand-canyon-national-park-public-health-update.htm for up-to-date information on trail closures and park operations.

Stacey also has a great article about these closures right here: Grand Canyon Trip Planner.

RELATED: 5 Hikes at Grand Canyon | Challenging Day Hiking in the Grand Canyon

Disclaimer: The route instructions on this post and website are for planning purposes only. Road construction, traffic, weather or other events cause conditions to vary from the written itineraries. In addition, any route has inherent dangers. Be careful and do what you can to minimize those dangers. The authors and UNSTOPPABLEStaceyTravel.com assume no liability for accidents or injuries sustained by readers who engage in the activities described herein.

Tell Ailin how much you enjoyed his Escalante Route Grand Canyon Report by leaving a comment below.

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UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was NOT provided with accommodations, meals or other compensation for the purpose of this guide. The Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active. 

Further, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks for reading.

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