John Wesley Powell's Nankoweap Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14038A, Backpacking


  • Experience one of the more remote sections of the Grand Canyon
  • Discover waterfalls
  • Admire the geology of the Butte Fault and expansive 360-degree views


  • Tried-and-true backpacking skills tailored to the Grand Canyon
  • Tasty and hearty lightweight meals
  • Permits and guidance on this mostly trail-less route


DatesApr 13–19, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffMichael Wise

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Trip Overview

The Trip

PLEASE NOTE:  Because of Grand Canyon National Park rules, a backcountry permit cannot be requested until December 1, 2013.  Dates and/or itinerary may have to be changed to obtain a permit.  Final dates and itinerary should be solidified by early January 2014.

This is a superb classic North Rim hike. The Nankoweap Trail was built by Major John Wesley Powell, geologist Charles Doolittle Walcott, and others in 1882.  Part of its colorful history includes its use by Utah horse thieves.  They linked the Tanner Trail on the south side of the Colorado River with the Butte Fault Trail and the Nankoweap Trail on the north side to form an escape route.  This is your chance to experience Saddle Mountain, Marion Point, Tilted Mesa, the Butte Fault, and many other wonders in this area. Our hike takes us through some of the most spectacular country in the Southwest and in the world.  Some days will be long, but the discoveries will be worth the effort.

John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Colorado River in 1869 led prospectors, railroad men, and promoters (like William Bass) to dream of ways to turn the wonders of the Grand Canyon into personal fortunes. Yet not until after World War II did tourists and hikers begin to seek out the area's beauty and solitude. Harvey Butchart and his family came to Flagstaff during the postwar period to teach mathematics at Northern Arizona University. Intrepid backcountry hikers like us are indebted to him for the 40 years he spent exploring and writing about the trails and routes of this fabulous wilderness.

The geology of the Grand Canyon is appreciated around the world because of its many colorful strata, from Kaibab limestone to Tapeats sandstone. These upper layers record our earth's history to the beginning of the Cambrian Period, 545 million years ago. In addition to journeying through all the layers, we will also hike the Butte Fault, which created Nankoweap Mesa and is responsible for many of the landscape features that we will enjoy on this journey. We will see stromatolites, fossilized cyanobacteria that helped create an oxygen-rich atmosphere over a billion years ago. The Canyon has an incredibly rich and diverse range of plants and animals because of the many ecological niches that converge there.


Pre-Trip: The day before our trip begins, we will meet in Marble Canyon on Arizona Highway 89 ALT at 5 p.m.  We will have introductions, discuss the general route, and then pore over maps to get into some of the finer details.  After the group meeting, we will have dinner, finalize all packing, and then retire for the evening to be ready for our early departure the next morning.  Dinner and lodging are not included in the trip price.

Day 1: We will rise early and be driving by 4:00 a.m. to the trailhead, a drive that will take about two hours.  After parking the cars, we will hike three miles (1,500 feet gain) to reach the saddle of Saddle Mountain at 7,600 feet.  We then descend a few hundred feet and hike for five miles along the base of an enormous wall of Supai. The trail is unlike any other in the Canyon as we undulate past Marion Point and then gradually descend to Tilted Mesa at about 6,000 feet. There are a couple of exposed sections of the trail -- they are short, but could present problems for anyone with particular sensitivity to exposure (being at the edge of a cliff). After descending steeply for three miles from Tilted Mesa, we will arrive at Nankoweap Creek at 3,400 feet, close to where we'll camp for the week. Today we will have hiked 11 miles, with 1,500 feet of elevation gain and 4,200 feet of elevation loss.

Day 2:  Today will be an easy day to let our bodies recuperate from yesterday’s long hike.  We will hike down Nankoweap Creek to its delta at the Colorado River, where there are interesting things to explore and postcard-worthy views of the Canyon.  A sandy beach will invite some to soak their feet in the Colorado and rest, while others may opt to explore up the Little Nankoweap Canyon.

Day 3:  Today takes us to waterfalls. Starting early, we will hike up Nankoweap Creek, taking the north arm below Marion and Seiber points to Mystic Falls. Our journey today is a gradual ascent of 2,000 feet over 5.5 miles, which we then reverse to return to camp.

Day 4:  Today we will hike to the top of Nankoweap Butte, with its unparalleled 360-degree view of the entire area that we have been exploring for the week.  We will have lunch upon this perch and allow plenty of time to enjoy our surroundings. The hike is about three miles round-trip, with 1,800 feet of elevation gain and loss.

Day 5: Today we hike from camp up the Butte Fault Trail, which isn’t a trail at all but a distinct route that follows a fault line. We will hike up 1,300 feet, cross the saddle between Nankoweap Mesa and Nankoweap Butte, then descend into Kwagunt Creek.  We will take our time to note, admire, and study the geology of this enormous fault.  After exploring the little waterfalls and sculpted river bed of Kwagunt Creek, we will return to our camp.

Day 6:  With another early start, we will hike up almost 3,000 feet over three miles to the top of Nankoweap Mesa. The Mesa is an island in the sky that dominates the view in every direction. As time permits, we will explore the top of the Mesa.

Day 7:  Arising very early, we will retrace our steps up 2,600 feet over three miles on the Nankoweap Trail to Tilted Mesa.  After taking a much deserved break and enjoying the beautiful views, we will continue to hike eight more miles, going up another 1,600 feet to the saddle of Saddle Mountain and then descending to our cars. We will arrive in the late afternoon or early evening.  As time allows, we may share a last dinner at a café near Marble Canyon.

Note: The exact itinerary for the trip may vary from what is described above depending on weather, water availability, and the strength and preferences of the group.



Getting There

Marble Canyon is located on AZ 89 ALT, approximately 270 miles and four hours of driving from Phoenix, Arizona. From Marble Canyon, we will caravan to the Nankoweap Trailhead together, which will entail driving about 20 miles west on AZ 89 ALT and then driving south on a dirt road for 30 miles through House Valley. This road is often in good condition and passable for most ordinary passenger vehicles, but a higher-clearance vehicle is preferable in case weather has damaged the road. Do not plan on returning to Marble Canyon before 6 p.m. on our last day.

Accommodations and Food

All meals are included from lunch on the first day of the outing through lunch on the last day of the outing. Responsibility for cooking and cleanup will be shared by trip participants. Meals include hearty, healthy, and varying breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The leaders work hard to make the weight of the food as light as possible to lessen the loads in our packs. Careful attention is paid to ensuring there are sufficient calories with high protein content so our bodies are well fueled. Organic foods are used as much as possible. We can easily accommodate vegetarians.

Trip Difficulty

Although we will spend most of the week hiking without packs from a base camp, this trip will be challenging. Some of the hiking is easy, but there is considerable arduous hiking as well. The hiking is surprisingly varied, with stretches of easy, relatively level hiking alternating with stretches of steep off-trail ascents and some exposure. Most of the trip is off-trail, except when we are hiking on the Nankoweap Trail. All backpack trips are physically demanding, and Grand Canyon backpack trips can be especially demanding, with dramatic elevation changes, exposure to the sun, and potentially hot conditions. This trip is appropriate for an experienced backpacker in excellent physical condition.

Regarding weather, it is usually dry at this time of year. In the Canyon, we can expect daytime highs in the low 80s and nights in the 50s.  At the rim where we park our cars, temperatures will be significantly lower, with highs only in the 50s and lows in the 30s.  Rain and wind are possible, although rarely persistent, at this time of year.  But remember that weather can be anything but usual!

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club provides the cooking gear, food, water purification, and a first-aid kit to be used for emergencies only. You are responsible for everything else that you want/need. We divvy up the gear and food provided by the Club, which generally equates to approximately 12-13 pounds each at the start of the trip. You must have the capacity to carry eight quarts (two gallons) of water even though you rarely will carry more than five quarts.

Carrying a heavy pack, a pack weighing more than 40 lbs. fully loaded, is very tiring. The leaders will be happy to work with you before the trip to choose functional lightweight equipment that will help make your trip much easier and pleasant. The leader's pack weight at the beginning of the trip will be less than 40 pounds. This includes all personal gear, 12 pounds of group gear, and four quarts of water. The leader will provide an extensive list of gear to each of the participants well in advance of the outing. The list will include those items that are essential, such as backpack, shelter, sleeping pad, sleeping bag rated to 30 degrees F, boots, and personal medications. The list will also include optional items, such as camera and reading material.



  • For an overview of the Grand Canyon, the Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon National Park map is good.  Available online from many sources.
  • For detailed coverage, the U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute topographical maps have all the detail. These are not required, but are perfect for the map enthusiast. Our route is on the Point Imperial and Nankoweap Mesa quadrangles.  Available from


  • The National Park Service maintains a website for each of the national parks.  The website for the Grand Canyon is especially complete, up-to-date, modern (podcasts, webcams), and informative.  Regularly visit for information or just to look around.


  • Ranney, Wayne, Carving the Grand Canyon.  A book on the theories of how the Grand Canyon has been formed.
  • Butler, Elias and Tom Myers, Grand Obsession. A look at Harvey Butchart’s tireless pursuit to find routes from the Rim to River in the Grand Canyon.
  • Fletcher, Colin, The Man Who Walked Through Time. An account of Fletcher’s non-stop walk along the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.
  • Price, Greer L., An Introduction to Grand Canyon Geology. Grand Canyon Association, 1999. An accessible book with plenty of illustrations and photos about Grand Canyon geology.


The real purpose of Sierra Club outings, which began in 1901, is to follow John Muir's example of bringing more people into the fold of protecting the earth's ecology. Muir wrote "if people could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish."

During our week in the wilds, we will discuss and practice minimal impact techniques and take on minor tasks to erase the signs left behind by less knowledgeable campers.

The Grand Canyon National Park is not designated as a wilderness area.  We will discuss what wilderness protection means, why one would want protect more land as wilderness, and what can be done to improve this protection. We'll also discuss the importance of your involvement and how to relay your concerns about the protection of wild lands. Additionally, we will discuss three current issues especially of importance to the Grand Canyon: noise from aircraft; lead in ammunition, which is impacting the California Condors; and uranium mining. You are encouraged to come prepared and introduce topics of interest to you.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Grand Canyon National Park and the Kaibab National Forest.



Mike Wise participated on several Sierra Club Trips into the Grand Canyon which inspired him to become a Sierra Club Trip Leader. He looks forward to the reward of helping others experience the same joys of backpacking he experienced and the importance of preserving our wilderness areas. Mike is from Michigan, has completed the Sierra Club National Outings Training Program and is certified as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR).


Rick Russman is a recently retired trial attorney and former New Hampshire state senator. His major passion is environmental policy. He is a co-founder of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators and chairs Conservation New Hampshire. In his free time, Rick can be found in the White Mountains enjoying the outdoors. He has backpacked, skied or kayaked in every area of the United States. Rick is a certified Wilderness First Responder.

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