Salt Trail Canyon to Little Colorado River Gorge Trip Report

Note: There have been reports that this trail is now closed. Permits are required to enter the area anyway, so check with Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation before planning a trip.

Planning the Trip

In late Fall 2017, just a few weeks after hiking across Zion, the itch to go backpacking again was already coming back. If I don’t have some sort of trip on the radar, I start to go a little crazy. I messaged a tight-knit group of friends and proposed a winter backpacking trip to the desert.

There were a few concerns voiced about the likelihood of cold temperatures, so I picked the Superstition Mountains (a rugged range east of Phoenix), as our destination. I expected our daytime highs to be in the 60s and 70s, with nighttime lows in the 40s. Using Topo Maps+, I plotted a 28-mile loop that would take us up Boulder Canyon and down La Barge Canyon.

Change of Plans

We agreed to do the hike in early January, but a dry spell left Phoenix without measurable rain for 103 days. I grew concerned about water availability and decided to change things up. I scoured the web for a new location and found stunning photos of the Little Colorado River. I was beguiled by magnificent turquoise waters set in a deep gorge.

Little colorado river hike
The Little Colorado River at canyon bottom

I continued to research the area and discovered a non-technical route in Salt Trail Canyon that gets you down to the bottom of the Little Colorado River Gorge. Backcountry permits were easy to obtain. The cost was $12 per person per night and available online from the Navajo Nation Parks website.

To prepare for the trip, I used Gaia GPS to download topographical maps of the area and read as much as I could about the trail itself. Information proved to be rather sparse, but I was able to find some valuable tidbits in Michael Kelsey’s Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau.

I also posted to an Arizona hiking group on Facebook to see if anyone else had been there. There, I was referred to some dated trip logs. If nothing else, they helped inspire confidence.

The Crew

By the time of our trip in early January, two of my friends were still committed to joining me for the adventure. Jason, who lives full time out of his van, drove out from Santa Barbara, California. He would meet us in Cameron, a dusty Arizona town on the Navajo Nation. Jason gets outside a lot and shoots beautiful landscapes.

Clay, the biggest music geek you’ll ever meet, flew out from Austin, Texas. I picked him up from Phoenix Sky Harbor and we made our way north. We stopped to pick up some last minute supplies at the REI Flagstaff Store and by the time we met up with Jason, the sun was low in the sky.

Little colorado river hike
Jason Lockwood (left) and Clay Hagblom (right)

Getting to the Trailhead

Our plan was to camp at the trailhead and we had never been on the quagmire of dirt roads that one takes to get there. Navigating the unknown would be more difficult in the dark, so we rushed to make it before sunset. In my haste, I failed to communicate with Jason and we turned off US 89 at different locations.

I managed to make it there first and was treated to a colorful sunset with a spectacular view of Salt Trail Canyon. As luck would have it, I found cell phone reception and texted Jason, who was not far behind. We happily reconvened, set up camp, and cooked brats. Without a proper fire, it was cold out there on the high plateau, but we made the most of it.

Little colorado river hike
Sunset at Salt Trail Canyon

The Hike

The next morning, we assembled our backpacks and made our way down the trail. The first set of switchbacks was gradual, but things got hairy in a hurry. All of a sudden, the route dropped down a steep, narrow, and heavily eroded section. That particular section was the most challenging, but it was similarly difficult all the way to the bottom, with Class 2-3 scrambles throughout.

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To my surprise, route finding was not too involved thanks to plentiful cairns, but there were still a couple tricky spots. At one point, we found ourselves at the edge of a 30-foot cliff with seemingly no way around it. After a few minutes of poking around, we found footprints leading uphill to the right. Sure enough, there was a way up and around.

Little colorado river hike
Salt Trail Canyon from just below the canyon rim

It took us nearly four hours to reach the Little Colorado River, where we set up camp and marveled at the water’s distinct color. We had descended 3,152 feet over 3.3 miles and felt ready to eat, hydrate, and relax.

Of course, we were well aware of the fact that the Little Colorado is fed by springs filled with calcium carbonate and copper sulfate. Because of that, it tastes terrible and it is not recommended that you drink it for extended periods. Still, we failed to bring enough water to go without it. Part of me hoped the reports were exaggerated, but I can now attest to the water’s foulness.

On a fruitless morning walk to find better water, Jason and Clay determined that our hopes to visit the confluence of The Colorado and Little Colorado would be squelched. The sheer river embankments did not seem like a feasible route to take all the way there. As a result, we decided to hike out that day.

It was a grueling three-and-a-half hour ascent, but when we exited the canyon we were greeted by a herd of wild horses. I can’t imagine a better reward for our efforts.

Photos

Little colorado river hike
We camped where the Salt Trail meets the Little Colorado River
Little colorado river hike
Turquoise colored water and canyon wall reflections on the Little Colorado
Little colorado river hike
Our last glimpse of the river on the way up Salt Trail Canyon

— Update: 07-01-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article Grand Canyon National Park: Tanner and Beamer Trails to Little Colorado River from the website www.backpacker.com for the keyword little colorado river hike.

Here’s the deal: This 37-mile trip, connecting the Tanner and Beamer Trails to the Little Colorado River, is for seasoned, fit hikers with solid navigation skills. If that’s you, read on. If not, amp up your adventure resume with other Grand Canyon hikes before trying this challenging trek to beachside campsites, a plane crash site, and 100-year-old mining ruins.

To start, drop off the South Rim from Lipan Point on the Tanner Trail. It’s a 4,600-foot, knee-buckling descent to the Colorado River over 9 miles, your first water source on this three- to four-day trek. Pack enough water for five hours of descending and consider dropping a water cache at Seventy-five mile saddle or the top of the Redwall for your ascent back to the rim. The first hour descends quickly through the Coconino layer then at mile 1.2 the trail eases near the base of Escalante Butte. Next, the trail gains and loses an extra 400 feet as it S-curves around Cardenas Butte to a break in the Redwall Limestone. Tackle a series of steep switchbacks and take in long panoramic views across the red-stained canyons to the mighty Colorado River. Follow the thin but obvious trail down the steep ‘redish’ Dox sandstone slope to the Colorado River at Tanner rapids. Fifty yards before the final descent to Tanner rapids beach you’ll notice a cairn with a trail taking off to the right – that’s the start of the Beamer Trail. There are plenty of campsites on Tanner beach including a nice hidden overhang camp for those inclement weather days. You’ll also find a composting toilet as a small reminder of civilization. Refill water bottles near Tanner Rapids or continue north (upstream) on the Beamer Trail.

The first 3 miles on the Beamer Trail crosses Comanche and Espejo Creeks and follows a skinny path with some scrambles along sandstone cliffbands then drops to a sandy campsite near Lava Canyon Rapids and Palisades Creek to end a 13-mile day; it’ll take about 8-9 hours from the trailhead to here.

The next day leave camp with only a daypack, food, and water. Explore the leftovers of a nearby copper mine then head north again along the Colorado River where the Beamer Trail will quickly ascend to the top of the Tapeats Sandstone cliffs just North of Palisades Creek. The trail skirts the Tapeats cliffs for 6 miles in and out of small drainages until the junction with the Little Colorado River.

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Between Chuar and Temple Buttes, look across the Colorado River to an area known as Crash Canyon. At 11:30 a.m. on June 30, 1956, airline officials received a transmission: “Salt Lake, United 718—ah—we’re going in.” Moments later, United Airlines Flight 718 collided with TWA Flight 2 over the Grand Canyon, sending both planes plummeting earthward. The fiery wreckage struck Chuar and Temple Buttes near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, killing all 128 people aboard. The tragedy sparked the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration. You can still see plane debris glittering in the sun on Chuar Butte.

Ahead, the Beamer Trail descends to the beach just inside the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. Now, follow the idyllic blues of the Little Colorado River to Beamer Cabin, a 100-year-old mining cabin. Rest and eat before heading six miles back to camp. If you camped at Lava Canyon Rapids, it’s best to backtrack an extra three miles to Tanner Rapids for night two or three, depending on your permit. This provides an ideal position for the final day’s ascent back to Lipan Point. There is no camping allowed within 1/4-mile of the mouth of the Little Colorado River.

PERMITS: Required backcountry permits are $10, plus $5 per person per day. The use area covering Tanner Trail is BB9. The use area covering the Beamer Trail from Comanche Creek North is BA9. Download application at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm; then fax to (928) 638-2125.

MORE INFO: Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888; nps.gov/grca

–Mapped by Dale Diulus and Rich Rudow

PLAN IT

GUIDEBOOK AND MAP Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, 3rd Edition , Ron Adkison and Ben Adkison ($19, falcon.com). Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon ($12,natgeomaps .com). Plan other trips in the park using BACKPACKER’s Grand Canyon National Park page.

SEASON March to May and October to November. From June to September, inner canyon temps from are often above 100°F. Start early to beat the midday heat. Also, don’t forget it is much easier to descend into the canyon than climb back up. Expect to spend at least double the time climbing than descending

KEY GEAR Wide-brim hat and six liters of water storage.

CONTACT Backcountry Information Office: (928) 638-7875 (from 1 to 5 p.m., Monday to Thursday), nps.gov/grca

STOCK UP Canyon Village Marketplace, South Rim. (928) 638-2262 http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm

FREE TRIP PLANNERS Get news on vacation deals and lodging at mygrandcanyonpark.com

10 Summer Hiking Essentials

Water – Plain and some with electrolyte replacement.
Food – especially salty foods. Eat twice as much as normal.
First Aid Kit – bandaids, ace wrap, antiseptic, moleskin, etc.
Map – while many trails are well-marked, maps are helpful tools.
Pack – to carry the essentials.
Flashlight/Spare Batteries – allows you to hike out during the cool of the evening.
Spray Bottle – fill with water for your own personal air conditioning system.
Hat/Sunscreen – to keep the sun off you and protect your skin.
Whistle and/or Signal Mirror – for emergency use.
Waterproof Clothing – poncho or jacket; especially usefull during monsoon season (mid-July to early September).

Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike
Little colorado river hike

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 59.6

Waypoints

WPT001

Location: 36.032662, -111.852436

Trailhead: Descend from Lipan Point on the Tanner Trail. It’s more than 4,600 feet to the Colorado River.

WPT002

Location: 36.044792, -111.845484

75 Mile Saddle under Escalante Butte

WPT003

Location: 36.06825, -111.832698

Climb

WPT004

Location: 36.101652, -111.831495

Tanner Trail continues to the right. Good beach campsites (permit required) near Colorado River.

WPT005

Location: 36.102196, -111.831547

Potential campsite

WPT006

Location: 36.111172, -111.826738

You might see a weather station used by the National Park Service to measure how sand shifts on this beach upstream from Tanner Rapids.

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WPT007

Location: 36.115568, -111.826931

Comanche Creek

WPT008

Location: 36.119194, -111.823991

Espejo Creek

WPT009

Location: 36.137244, -111.815955

Potential campsite downstream from Lava Canyon Rapids

WPT010

Location: 36.138325, -111.8155

Old copper mine near the mouth of Palisades Creek

WPT011

Location: 36.178598, -111.811935

Look across between Chuar and Temple Buttes to Crash Canyon, the site of a plane crash in 1956.

WPT012

Location: 36.19104, -111.802587

Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. Trace Little Colorado to old cabin.

WPT013

Location: 36.19202, -111.79459

Beamer Cabin: This cabin is more than 100 years old and is protected by a cliff overhang. No camping in the cabin.

Tanner Trail

Location: 36.085097, -111.826767

A classic view of the Dox Sandstone side hill traverse.

Stiff descent

Location: 36.034351, -111.850558

Climb down through the switchbacks in the tough Coconino sandstone descent. A big blowout here was recently repaired with a nice section of steps. Applaud the trail crews as you hike this section!

75 Mile Saddle

Location: 36.044935, -111.845369

A great place to take a break. Take in the views down 75 mile canyon and of Desert View Watch Tower.

Big views from the Redwall

Location: 36.068241, -111.832559

There are a few picturesque camps at the top of the Redwall that many believe are among the very best in Grand Canyon.

Mine

Location: 36.138221, -111.81417

There was a lot of mining history in Grand Canyon including in this area. Be careful around here though – the mines are not stable and some have high levels of radiation and arsenic – best to view them from a far.

Little Colorado Gorge

Location: 36.190399, -111.787992

Travertine dams galore in if you hike a short ways up the LCR from Beamer’s cabin

Beamer Cabin

Location: 36.1922, -111.794214

Beamer’s cabin was built from an old Indian ruin. No camping in the cabin or within 1/4 mile of the confluence of the river.

Cabin Interior

Location: 36.192096, -111.794171

Shelves and old mining relics remain inside Beamer Cabin

The Gorgeous LCR

Location: 36.192131, -111.790867

Rafter’s float around this area in the warm spring waters.

Confluence

Location: 36.191334, -111.800437

The turquoise waters of the LCR branch around a small island before mixing with the Colorado River.

Confluence View to the North

Location: 36.191127, -111.802154

Mixing Line

Location: 36.191334, -111.800609

The distinct line where the LCR and the Colorado meet. The LCR is warm at about 70 deg while the Colorado is frigid at 48 deg.

Dawn reflections

Location: 36.187247, -111.807346

Thin line

Location: 36.185135, -111.809535

The trail often runs thin along ledges above the Colorado.

Big Views

Location: 36.184857, -111.810694

Big views open up hiking on top of the Tapeats sandstone layer.

Down River Views

Location: 36.17696, -111.81241

The Beamer Trail is an enjoyable stroll in this section with big views above the river.

Paralleling Temple Butte

Location: 36.172248, -111.811209

Temple Butte is the big cliff formation across the river and it seems to go on forever. Fortunately, you’ll have plenty of big views to absorb along the way.

Trail hugs the cliff top

Location: 36.169962, -111.810436

Yep … you walk the edge of that cliff!

Beamer Views!

Location: 36.155756, -111.811466

Take in big views as you hike along above the river.

Palisades Overview

Location: 36.143073, -111.812582

The trail heads down abruptly when you approach Palisades Creek.

Thin bypass

Location: 36.126645, -111.819277

The trail climbs high to bypass some cliffs

Tanner Rafter Camp

Location: 36.103001, -111.82786

The camp across the river is very popular with rafters in the Winter because it gets nice morning sun.

Overhang Camp

Location: 36.102307, -111.830864

This is a great place to camp for a few people looking to avoid inclement weather. Be sure to “Raven” proof your food around here!

Dusk Ascent

Location: 36.081569, -111.828203

Taken from the top of the red Dox sandstone slope on the hike up.

Big Views of the greater Tanner area

Location: 36.074112, -111.829319

Just before the Redwall

Location: 36.068076, -111.829705

you’ll begin the Redwall ascent right after this scenic traverse.

References

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About the Author: Tung Chi