Editor’s Note: This story recounts an attempt by two hikers to record the fastest known time (FKT) on the Tuckup Trail, which is located in the Grand Canyon. There are two very important things to know before you read this: 1) This hike requires a backcountry permit from Grand Canyon National Park and should not be attempted by anyone who does not have extensive backcountry experience and the stamina to go with it. This is a trail best experienced vicariously. 2) An FKT on the Tuckup Trail is essentially impossible, because there isn’t an actual trail for large sections of the route — shortcuts abound. And without an established trail from one end to the other, it’s extremely difficult for hikers to follow the exact same route as others and measure their respective times.
Some adventures are more involved than others. The Tuckup Trail is among the “more involved.” Crossing the entire route tests not just your endurance and navigation skills but also your willingness to suffer. Thankfully, Ashly Winchester and I have plenty of the latter, as well as some degree of the former.
If you’re not familiar, the Tuckup is a remote, rugged trail on the Esplanade level of Grand Canyon National Park — on the very remote and hard-to-access west end of the already quite remote and hard-to-access North Rim. No one knows for sure how long it is, but the National Park Service estimates it to be about 60 miles from east to west. The official trail guide also cautions that “mileages are very difficult/impossible to gauge, because the terrain is so convoluted and routes vary.” Copy that.
Ashly and I decide to set out on the Tuckup because of our shared love of long, hard routes and remote speed missions. As an added bonus, the Canyon is now my backyard — and, thanks to my day job as co-owner of Dreamland Safari Tours, I’m in a position to judge conditions and access to the Tuckup’s remote trailheads.
And so, on November 1, we head out toward the 150 Mile Trailhead, the eastern terminus for the Tuckup. The few in-the-know folks I’ve talked to about our plans have all voiced the same opinion: that we’re in for a beatdown — an adventure where 20 miles will feel like 100. Undeterred, we have readied our gear for what we figure will be a 60- to 80-mile route that shouldn’t take much longer than 36 hours at a conservative pace. After all, the trail is almost flat. How hard can it be?
Andrea and Orion, two of our colleagues, have volunteered to give us a ride to the eastern terminus. We’re prepared for the fact that we might not be able to get to the trailhead because of washed-out roads after recent monsoon flooding. Turns out, we were right, but not because of road conditions. Our truck encounters worrisome transmission issues right at the national park boundary, causing our friends to head back to Kanab, Utah, while we decide to use the remaining 6 miles of road as a warmup. We start the approach hike to the trailhead at 3 p.m.
A little less than two hours later, we reach the trailhead (where four other vehicles are parked, so the road clearly was passable) and are ready to get going for real. We take a break to refresh our feet and legs, then start our watches for the Tuckup fastest-known-time, or FKT, attempt at 5:15 p.m. The trail leads us down an abrupt, steep descent into the Canyon, and soon, we find ourselves in the land of Canyon time and Canyon miles, where normal chronology does not apply.
We quickly find out that even a conservative 2 mph pace is difficult on the east side of the Tuckup, and nighttime navigation is nearly impossible, even with a solid GPS track. There’s barely any trail, and cactuses, century plants and other pricklies abound. The Esplanade itself may be largely flat, but there’s a maze of side canyons and arroyos to navigate. To borrow another adventurer’s apt description, crossing the Esplanade feels like being trapped in a fractal.
Our initial plan was to push through the night, put down as many miles as possible and set ourselves up for a 36-hour finish — 48 hours tops, if things are slow. But a few hours after dark, we’ve barely covered 10 miles, and the terrain is getting harder, not easier. I spend a lot of time in the lead, continuously relying on my headlamp’s high beam as I try to make sense of the maze of canyon end runs and precipitous drops we’re facing. I love my headlamps, but I know that I haven’t packed enough battery power to sustain high-beam use for what now will be a minimum of two full nights. At the same time, we quickly realize that “onsighting” a fast time — in other words, doing so without any route research — is going to be impossible, so we decide to change tack.
Drawing lessons from my multi-day experience on the Iditarod Trail, I suggest we sleep early and plentifully — a minimum of three hours, as opposed to the 30 to 60 minutes that so often characterize hard FKT pushes. We bed down more than an hour before midnight, and I set my alarm for 2 a.m. Tired and reluctant to leave our sleeping bags, we end up snoozing and watching shooting stars from the warmth of our sleep setups until after 4 a.m.
Day two is our make-or-break day: We know that we need to find water today or bail at the halfway point. Water on the Tuckup is available only from a few springs of mixed water quality or productivity, and from a much better option: potholes that will hold water after rain. It rained about a week before our attempt, so we’re hopeful, but while we’ve seen traces of pothole water, we’ve also encountered a lot of dried-up sources. The water we did see, early on, was so shallow and close to evaporation that the only way to harvest it would have been with a sponge. We know we’re coming up hard against the end of this rainwater window, because for every pothole that does hold water, we walk past a thousand empty holes.
To our great relief, we do find water, not just in Cork Spring (which is barely running and very bittertasting) but also in the occasional pothole along the way. By the time we reach our halfway point (and sole bailout option) just below the Schmutz Trailhead, it’s clear that even though water isn’t abundant, it’ll be enough to get us through. We’re moving atrociously slow, but we don’t have to bail out of fear of dehydration.
So, we keep on keeping on. Our hopes of faster daytime progress dissipate as the hours tick by. We cover barely 25 miles despite moving from 4:30 a.m. until after dark. It’s hard to say what, exactly, makes this trail so hard, but hard it is. Finding and collecting water takes up precious time. Climbing from the Esplanade level into the Hermit Formation, and sometimes seemingly as high as the Coconino Sandstone, to end-run side canyons takes up precious time. Finding shaded spots to escape the sun and cool down takes up precious time. Dancing the twostep with a thousand cactuses takes up precious time. Everything takes time. The hours fly by, yet the miles are barely passing.
Night two, day three: more of the same. We have a serious talk about bailing at the halfway point, but with water in the picture, we decide we don’t have a good reason not to complete the route. It might take us twice as long as expected, but we have what we need to get it done.
It’s hard, and it’s slow, but there’s a consistent theme for our journey, above and beyond aches and difficulty. It’s joy. And laughter. We find humor in the most absurd situations. We start calling the Tuckup “Trail” the Magic Trail — initially because it feels like magic when we find our first actual trail segments, and later because the trail proves, time and again, that it knows how to put on a disappearing act. Thanks, Tuckup.
By the time daylight rolls around, I’m starting to harbor serious concerns about missing the bus. The bus, in this case, is Maddi and Robert. They’ve agreed to take a personal camping trip to Toroweap, one of Dreamland’s off-road-tour destinations, to be there when we finish and give us a ride back to Kanab. The catch is that Toroweap closes its gates half an hour after sunset, which at this time of year is around 7:30 p.m. I am keenly aware that if we finish our adventure too late in the day on Thursday, none of us will make it home for work on Friday.
Nevertheless, we push hard, moving until long after dark and getting up long before daybreak to get through the miles that separate us from Toroweap — which, as the crow flies, is only 4 or 5 miles from our final bivy spot. Factor in the fractal challenge of endrunning end runs, and we still have a good 15 to 20 miles to cover to get from our final sleep spot to the western trailhead.
And then, on day four (in calendar days; in terms of elapsed time, we’re still under 70 hours), we finally do find easy footing and the semblance of a real trail. As the national park trail guide accurately states: “The trail [from Toroweap] begins deceptively easily.” We make good time and finally get to enjoy the views for which Toroweap is famous: a sheer 3,000-foot drop to the Colorado River. Rather than missing the bus, we beat our revised-and-revised-again estimate by more than a half-hour, finishing all 80 brutal miles of the Tuckup in 69 hours, 21 minutes. It’s hard to put into words what this adventure means to Ashly and me, but this much is certain: The Esplanade of the Grand Canyon feels more remote and inescapable than anything else I’ve experienced in the lower 48 to date. The Tuckup is a formidable adventure, and I highly recommend it to any intrepid adventurer who prizes self-sufficiency and is OK with slow, hard terrain. I know I’ll be back, but not for another FKT. My next go-round on the Tuckup is going to be slow, with all the time in the world for side trips and explorations.
BY THE NUMBERS
Ashly and I spent 69 hours, 21 minutes on the route (plus 6 miles on our two-hour approach hike before the real start). According to Ashly’s GPS watch, we covered approximately 81 miles and 13,000 feet of ascent. Our packs each weighed about 22 pounds at the beginning of our adventure, and we each came home with only a few hundred calories to spare. We saw precisely zero people between the two trailheads, although we did follow footsteps that couldn’t have been older than a day or two.