A wild and windy weekend on Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon
May 3-4, 2014
We've made the trek from the South Rim to Horseshoe Mesa three times now, most recently in 2010. It always seemed like a shame to turn around and head back uphill once you made it to the lip of the mesa. We finally realized our wish to camp on the mesa by hooking up with a Meetup group from Phoenix that had scored some permits for the group camping area.
We arrived at Mather Campground close to midnight, so got a rather late start the following morning. While we waited for our fellow campers, Dennis and I discovered that all of the "boulders" on the edge of the campground were actually elk! And they were absolutely indifferent to our presence!
It was nearly 11:00 when we finally hit the trail. As on previous hikes, we were blown away by the engineering of this trail, which was essentially nailed to the side of a cliff 120-plus years ago to provide access to a small copper mine on Horseshoe Mesa. The exposure is a bit much, especially for the first mile, but the views are stupendous!
About halfway down, the trail crosses a narrow land bridge known as "Coconino Saddle", which marks the transition between the Coconino sandstone above and the red rocks of the Hermit Shale and Supai formations.
In the hottest part of the day we were navigating a long and shadeless section where we had to clamber around a lot more rock slides that I remembered. Since there's no water on the mesa, we were each carrying six (14 pounds) of water, for a total pack weight of nearly 40 pounds. Our progress slowed to a crawl, and by the time we reached the mesa I was spent.
I stripped down and focused on rehydrating, while Dennis attempted to anchor the tent to the mesa in gale force winds. Toward evening I had recovered enough to take a stroll along the edge of the mesa, admiring the stunning views of the inner canyon below, and above us the multi-colored cliffs above us.
Although we'd had amibtions to explore much more of the mesa, it occurred to me that the best part of the trip was simply having the time to simply sit quietly and drink in our surroundings, instead of having to be constantly preoccupied with having to get somewhere.
Right at sunset, two ravens delighted me with some spectacular aerobatics, punctuated by low chortling. They bid each other farewell with a resounding "caw" that echoed up and down the canyon, and went their separate ways. Raven date night!
To beat the heat, we decided to beat the heat by getting underway at first light. We were up at 4:30 and on the trail by 6:00. I will never forget the color of the sky that morning and the exhilaration of waking up on an island in the middle of the Grand Canyon. 2500-foot elevation gain and all, the climb out took us an hour less than the descent, remding me once again that heat — not elevation or distance — is the biggest challenge for the desert hiker.