If you are not already familiar with the New Hance Trail, it will probably help to read Bob Ribokas' Trail Description and view his Trail Map before reading my description. When viewing his trail map, remember to click on the "pink arrow" scroll icon to see the rest of the trail. Most trail descriptions refer to the rock formations as a guide to a given part of the trail, and hence it helps to be familiar with the rock layers of the Canyon.
The trail knowledge below comes from my hikes on the entire New Hance trail with overnight backpack in 1985 and 1986, and a dayhike from the Rim to the Redwall descent in September 1999. The trail did not change perceptibly in those 14 years.
The Attractions Of This Trail
The Most Difficult Trail? - Comments By Others
What Causes Those Comments?
Tips For Staying On The Trail
This trail has many attractions which make this a memorable hike:
The words of John Wesley Powell, on his first journey into the unknowns of the Colorado River through the Canyon, ring through my mind whenever I think of this location:
I think of Powell echoing those thoughts in his mind as he enters the inner gorge. I can imagine him thinking that the possibility of climbing out of the Canyon, or even being able to stop for the night or rest at a suitable beach, was vanishing as those walls rose higher and higher.
We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders.
We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly.
One end of the very beautiful Escalante Route, a challenging route for experienced Canyon hikers, also begins here.
There is an interesting cliff of Hakatai Shale on the other side of the River, which has a basaltic dike with columnar jointing that is intruded at an angle and then becomes a sill, parallel to the bedding of the Shale.
With so many attractions, some would say that it is only appropriate that one have to pay a hefty price to enjoy them. The New Hance Trail, in Red Canyon, has the reputation of being one of the most difficult of the trails in the Grand Canyon. There exist more difficult routes, but that is a different category of hiking experience. (Routes involve some route-finding ability, as opposed to just following a beaten path.)
Some of the comments made by others about this trail:
A frustrating feature of the New Hance is that you give up all the Supai elevation twice (on the climb out)(Norm's first two comments are incorrect for the proper trail, although they very well may correctly apply to the route he took. See below.)
The whole climb requires the use of hands and sticks to climb over boulders
(The trail is so steep that) it felt like a forced march
The New Hance, from the rim to the river is a killer. No...not just a killer, its a KILLER'S KILLER. No two ways about it. I have also climbed UP the New Hance (no picnic either) but in THIS direction, this trail is a thigh burning, ankle twisting, blister birthing (and blister breaking) chest cramping, KILLER!! By the time we made the only level camp site between the rim and the river, I was wasted.
From the consistency of the comments made by numerous people, there is no question that there is something about the trail which has caused this reputation of being a difficult trail! The features which result in these comments are:
However, there are two points along that section where the trail becomes poor, with the tread of the trail not horizontal, making it tricky to navigate safely. Fortunately, the tricky section at each of those two points is only 6-10' in length, and can be traversed with quick steps and a prayer. It would also probably be easy to do a bit of trail maintenance in those locations and eliminate most of the danger if one was willing to spend the time rather than just zip over those points.
The combination of steepness, loose footing in places, somewhat dangerous spots, and carrying heavy overnight backpacks restricting one's mobility and balance make this a memorable trail in the minds of those who hike it. Hiking down with a heavy backpack makes one's balance precarious, and hiking up with a heavy backpack is extremely tiring.
However, if you have hiked even one of the non-maintained trails in the Canyon, you won't find this trail fundamentally different from the others. Yes, it may be slightly worse in steepness, but it shares more similarities than differences with the other non-maintained trails. I scare easily, yet have hiked this trail three times with no fear or problems at all. I have even hiked out most of the trail at night by flashlight without any problem other than the need to take care to make sure I was on the trail.
The contrast between Cheech Calenti's and Gary DeFraia's writeup of the same trip is an excellent lesson demonstrating that first-time Canyon hikers should use one of the Corridor Trails (Bright Angel, Kaibab) as their first Canyon experience. Both viewpoints are valid. It takes several trips before one gets used to the non-maintained trails and converts them from "a KILLER'S KILLER" of a trail to "a fun hike".
The single biggest problem of this trail, judging from my own experiences and the comments of others, is simply making sure you are on the actual trail, and not off-trail or on one of the alternate trails leading one to insurmountable obstacles.
I continue to lose trails myself on a regular basis, and probably nearly as frequently now as when I was a novice hiker. The main difference is that I now recognize much more quickly that I have left the trail, and hence go back and recover the trail sooner. Here is some general advice that may help you stay on this trail:
I have at least temporarily lost this trail 3-4 times in each direction on each hike, usually taking from 10 seconds to 5 minutes each to recover the trail. Once, when I was hiking out with haste in order to get help for someone in 1985, I lost the trail by missing a switchback for a total of about 30 minutes or so near the bottom of the Redwall ascent. My memory is hazy, but I probably took 5-10 minutes to realize I was off-trail, 5-10 minutes to gauge my position and get a strategy for getting back on the trail, and the rest of the time to get back on the trail. (My altimeter and my trip log notes helped immensely here.) I even lost the trail for 5 minutes on my most recent hike while I was going over in my head the tips I was planning to writeup to help people stay on this trail! While I was not paying proper attention, I had charged upstream on an alternate trail that followed the streambed, missing a 90° left turn away from the streambed that was marked by two cairns.
The New Hance Trail is a drainage trail, giving lots of shade but only restricted views. The upper part of the trail gives good views into the upper part of Red Canyon, with Coronado Butte separating Red Canyon from Hance Creek, and the Sinking Ship listing into the head of Hance Creek. Later the stunning red of the Hakatai Shale at the bottom of Red Canyon dazzles the eyes. At virtually no place along the trail can you see the trail anyplace other than near your feet.
The trailhead is reached via a dirt pathway at the low point on the East Rim Drive midway between Buggeln Picnic Area (just east of Grandview Point) and Moran Point, on the north. (Yes, that really is the way Buggeln is spelled!) The beginning of the dirt pathway is identified by dual "No Parking" signs at a white gravel area that can be used to drop off backpacks and all hikers except the driver. The car can be parked either at Moran Point, 1.3 mile to the east, a 30 minute walk along the road, or at a dirt road 0.6 mile to the west on the south, a 12 minute walk along the road. That dirt road is about a mile past the Buggeln Picnic Area. Although there is a brief trail going along the rim from Moran Point toward the trailhead, that trail doesn't continue for long, and it is faster and easier to walk along the road.
This low point in the road is the drainage you follow north 0.2 mile to the signed trailhead. This is an unusual entryway into the Canyon, since nearly all of the South Rim drainage is to the south, away from the Canyon.
The trail goes first to a point 50-100' below Coronado Butte Saddle at ~6,000', 1.5 miles and ~960' below the trailhead. Don't expect to hike down the first part of the trail at high speed. There are many 2-3' steps down, and hence the hike is more like picking one's way down a cliff instead of strolling along a trail. The journey to just below the saddle took me 73 minutes to go 1.45 miles, an average speed of only 1.2 mph. In compensation, the trail is extremely easy to follow in this part, and I lost the trail only once for about a minute on the way back up when it switchbacked and I didn't.
From the trailhead, the trail goes nearly directly downhill using switchbacks until near the Toroweap / Coconino boundary at about 6,400', and then abruptly stops descending for a very brief respite and heads northeast toward Moran Point. The part actually has a bit of uphill, which briefly caused me to wonder whether I wasn't making a grievous mistake and heading up some alternate trail from the rim. Fortunately, quickly the trail turns left, doubts disappear and the steep downhill resumes through the Coconino. At one mile and 45 minutes from the trailhead is the very short "slide" mentioned in one report, which really is hardly news-worthy.
The saddle is a good point to cache water if you are coming back up the trail. I cached 0.6 liter on a cool day with maximum temperatures around 70° at that altitude.
Below the saddle the trail becomes more like a typical Canyon trail, and the speed picks up. The trail is mostly locally flat, with fewer places with steps of 2' or more. There is a single 4' "step" about 0.8 miles below the saddle, but there is a nicely placed tree root with a wedged-in small rock that breaks it into two 2' steps.
The only challenge now is staying on the right trail, as the 1.3 miles and 1,100' below the saddle contains a number of alternate trails. The trail is nearly always clearly-defined and marked by well-placed cairns.
The end of this section brings you to the top of the Redwall, and a sudden transition to a nearly-level trail for the next mile as the trail contours toward a break in the Redwall to resume the descent. The trail goes up and down only ~50' several times in this section, with no alternative trails to worry about.
This is the only section to give me pause. You are extremely close to the top of the Redwall. Although you fortunately cannot see the ~500' vertical cliff below you due to the 40-80' of ~45°-sloped rock below the trail, you can see the cliff all around you, so you know it is there below you. Most of the trail is in fine shape causing no worry. But as mentioned above, there are two spots in the first half of this section where the trail becomes poor, with the tread of the trail not horizontal, making it tricky to navigate safely. Fortunately, the tricky section at each of those two points is only 6-10' in length, and can be traversed with quick steps and a prayer. But this is not to be taken lightly, as the broken ankle of Robin Ribokas attests. Make sure you know how you will get across those sections before you attempt them.
A "ridge viewpoint" is reached about halfway through this section at 4.25 miles from the trailhead. Pause at this point to appreciate the view. The trail curves 110° right to contour around a mini-canyon on the right. Except possibly in summer or late afternoon, there is substantial solid rock-wall shade in this section that makes a nice resting point just 5 minutes down the trail, although it doesn't enjoy the view that this ridge viewpoint offers. The trail contours through that point to the ridge just to the north of you, at the same altitude, crosses to the other side, but then comes back to the saddle lower along that ridge. The Redwall descent begins in earnest on the other side of that saddle. The Tonto-like platform to the left and below that ridge is where the trail will continue after the Redwall descent, although the trail itself it out of sight behind the ridge.
I found no difficulty at all in 1999 following the trail to the Redwall descent - nothing tempted me to take any other way down, as some have found. In 1999 I only had time to go about 1/5 of the way down the Redwall descent, and reluctantly had to turn around at that point. Hence the rest of this description relies on my notes and poor memory from 1985 and 1986.
Once through the Redwall, the only remaining real challenge is to pick the right trail that will divert around the boulders on the floor of Red Canyon. My notes from 1986 state that I took the branch on the east at 0.75 miles from the River "to bypass the boulders". I don't recall having to deal with any boulders during either the 1985 or 1986 trip.
For more information, see my trip writeups from June 29-30, 1985, May 23-26, 1986 and September 26, 1999, especially the latter, and Sherry Wheelock's June 29-30, 1985 writeup.
Copyright © 1999 by Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Last update: 10 November 1999.