Sixtymile - Grand Canyon Notes

A Grand Canyon Explorer’s Essential Books

See Grand Canyon Trails for information on the popular trails. For resources leading to discovery of the more adventurous possibilities, read on.

There are seven books by four authors that are the absolute essentials for exploratory (off-trail) hikers: these are Hiking the Grand Canyon by John Annerino; Grand Canyon Loop Hikes I and II by George Steck (or the "Loops" books); Grand Canyon Treks, Treks II and Treks III by Harvey Butchart (or the "Treks" books); and Hiking in the Grand Canyon Backcountry by J.D. Green and Jim Ohlman. The original "Treks" books are now out-of-print but many experienced hikers still have them and use them.

Annerino – This is the one complete guidebook to Grand Canyon, including sections on human and natural history, geology, weather, trip reservations, physical conditioning, equipment, the trails and off-trail routes, climbing history, riverside hikes, and a very rare section on the Little Colorado gorge. With his extensive desert travel and climbing experience, John knows his subject and covers all of the popular routes and many of the more obscure ones. This book is well-written and, to the best of my knowledge, completely accurate. However, John is something more than just a hiker and has other interests than just the Grand Canyon, and this shows in the details. No mater how well researched, there is no substitute for the depth of knowledge that other authors have earned over a lifetime of experience wholly devoted to Grand Canyon exploration. For access to extensive knowledge of the vast possibilities, other sources must be added.

Steck – The "Loops" books describe long trips in detail from start to finish. Each route is a complete expeditionary guide with suggested water sources and campsites, but there are also many options and alternate connections. All the hikes are on the North Rim or in the Marble Canyon area and involve extensive off-trail travel. All require the utmost physical and mental preparation in addition to extensive outdoor experience. The time estimates are helpful, but optimistic except for the well-conditioned hiker or talented athlete. Every trip offers significant hazards due to remoteness, water problems, route-finding (very difficult route-finding), cliffs (big cliffs), and major elevation change. George is reasonably cautious, but not intimidated by long distances, unknown terrain, or severe vertical exposure. Loop Hikes I starts with a section with the best general advice I've ever read anywhere on canyon backcountry hiking. An important example is: "explore...FROM water, not TO water." I was fortunate to travel with George on his route around Powell Plateau and was there for the flash-flood described in Loop Hikes II. He is a wonderful storyteller both in person and in print. These books are informative and fun to read besides.

Grand Canyon Loops update 2001: You might still find the two original volumes but they are combined now into a single book under the FalconGuide series. There are a few changes in the maps and organization, but the overall content is the same.

Butchart – These three tiny, venerable books are still the classics. Anyone who thinks they have "done" the Canyon after covering the lines found on most maps must read these books. Together, they cover virtually every part of the Canyon where it is possible to go. The style is precise, but extremely compact...whole weeks of hiking may be outlined in a single paragraph. But after all, this the distillation of a lifetime 1,000 days of exploration. It has often taken me much map study and more than one visit to an area to find and duplicate the tracks and routes. This is just fine for me; it preserves the sense of mystery and discovery. Little more is revealed in these books beyond the account of what is out there to be discovered, so be prepared to work for and appreciate your achievements. Harvey often hiked with the support of experienced rockclimbers and used ropes for safety or to descend cliffs. Not everyone is prepared to deal with such obstacles. With a practical comparison between written description and physical experience of the terrain, one comes to understand the exact meaning of Harvey's code-words like "sporty," "precarious," and "arduous." With the precision that might be expected of a mathematician, every word has an exact meaning. See Grand Canyon Glossary.

The "Treks" books include original descriptions of routes up some of the non-technical summits. Some of the information is outdated. For example, crossing the river on an air mattress is now nearly impossible because of the very cold water temperature (if you can even find an air mattress), and some trails that were once very faint are now much easier to follow. Also, access to the head of some routes is now prohibited by the Havasupai. One fact that may make these books difficult for many hikers is Harvey’s special interest in finding rim-to-river routes. But the many route segments that he pioneered in the process can be pieced together into some truly fascinating trips.

Grand Canyon Treks update 1997: The original three volumes are now out-of-print but combined into a new edition. The sole merit in doing this is to keep the material available. Otherwise, it is not an improvement. The new edition is not complete. You will have to know almost every word of the original books to know what is missing, but I might never have found one of my favorite routes without the errata of the third book. Another complaint is the way that the material was edited together, with the result that some events are encountered out of sequence in the text. Other failings are the useless "maps" and lame attempt at "ratings." These ratings must have passed review by either the NPS bureaucracy or a committee of lawyers because they are utterly useless. I would have much rather that they had published the three texts in essentially the same form within one cover, preserving the historical character of these writings which have become somewhat outdated as a guide. The superficial appearance of being updated may confuse newcomers to the GC.

Green and Ohlman – This book does a lot to bring the "Treks" books up-to-date and is extremely comprehensive, but not a complete success. The prose style is a little imprecise and even confusing. Personal touches, such as weather experiences and the religious origin of geographic names, are not really informative or entertaining. Although standard numeric classifications are used to rate many of the routes, these terms are never defined for the benefit of those not schooled in climbing terminology. Lastly, although the book succeeds as a guide to rock-climbing ascents of temples and promontories, it falls short as a hiking guide. Many important, good routes are poorly described or omitted, and certain alleged accesses are simply not suitable for most hikers. However, the book stands up well for completeness by including details on western sections that are poorly known, and by providing photos of Butchart's maps which make it much easier to decipher the "Treks" books. Almost every route I know of gets some mention and much of the information is not in print elsewhere. In the end, this book counts as an essential resource for substance over style.

Other Books: Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau by Michael Kelsey is the clear winner in a contest of information-per-pound. Now in the 5th edition 2006, with 120 hikes, from day-trips to overnighters, in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, including maps, photos, and geologic cross-sections, this book defines completeness. Various editions may have significant content differences, and most of the trips are outside the Grand Canyon. Scott Thybony's A Guide to Hiking the Inner Canyon also deserves mention, but it is too brief to really be considered a backcountry guidebook.

The best guidebook currently in print for general hiking on the popular trail system seems to be Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, a FalconGuide book by Ron Adkison. For the serious hiker-explorer, the main trails are just initial access to the real backcountry.

Out of Print: For an introduction to Grand Canyon hikes for ordinary mortals, the choice is On Foot in the Grand Canyon by Sharon Spangler. This book relates Sharon's personal experiences on each trail and thoroughly covers backcountry travel on the typical trails. Someone reading this should be able to have a sense of Canyon hiking without actually having done it. A Naturalist's Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon by Stewart Aitchison would be a good choice for having only one book on hiking in the Canyon.

Maps (if any) that appear in guidebooks are good for planning, but not usually sufficient help in hiking. For more information and recommendations see Essential Maps.


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