The Tuweep Wilderness
North Rim of The Grand Canyon Arizona Strip
Text & Photos by A.R. Royo
If you're looking for an out-of-the-way hiking and camping adventure with breath-taking views of the desert and the Grand Canyon gorge, check out the Tuweep Wilderness.
The Tuweep Wilderness is one of the most remote areas in the United States. It's located in the Arizona Strip, an isolated region of northwestern Arizona along the North Rim of the western Grand Canyon, just before it meets Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Such a journey is not for the faint of heart, nor the feeble of vehicle. To arrive at the Toroweap Overlook requires a 70-mile drive over unpaved, bone-jarring roads across the Great Basin Desert. It is at least as far to get back. There is no water, no habitation and no services, so you want to make sure you have a full tank of gas, carry plenty of water and food and have a VERY reliable vehicle. A tow costs $1,000 – $2,000.
Cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent in this area. Since there are few, if any, year-round residents, assistance is not guaranteed on any route. For these reasons, no one should attempt the trip without ample preparation and knowledge of the hazards associated with remote desert travel. Travelers should carry:
• Extra water, food, and gasoline;
• Good tires including at least one usable spare;
• and parts, tools, and knowledge to handle vehicle and tire repairs including tire plugs and a portable air compressor.
I recently ventured into the Tuweep Wilderness with a group of geologists driving primarily 4WD vehicles with CB radios. We assembled in Fredonia, Arizona, a small town near the Utah border at the junction of routes U.S. 89 and Arizona 389. There is a great U.S. Forest Service office here with dozens of pamphlets about hiking, camping, biking etc. in the Kaibab National Forest and the Grand Canyon's North Rim.
We ate lunch, gassed up, stocked up on water and checked our oil, food and spare tires before heading west on Arizona 389. After about 8 miles, we turned left on an unpaved road designated Route 1 which is Mohave County 109 (if you can find a sign). It is called the Sunshine Route or Antelope Valley Road on some maps. From here, we bounced along in each other's dust for the next couple hours listening to CB chatter.
There are two other routes to Tuweep. Route 2 (named Clayhole Road or Mohave County 5) on some maps) leaves Arizona 389 past Pipe Spring National Monument at Colorado City. It is 60miles to the Overlook, has a reputation for being less washboardy, but is slicker in wet weather.
After the routes converge at about mile 45, the road is called Toroweap Road on some maps. Route 3 is the most scenic and comes from St. George, Utah. This is the route our group took out, but it is almost twice as long and is impassable in winter, October through May.
The park service has made a decision to keep these roads unimproved to limit the number of visitors to Tuweep. The signage can also be very confusing, and posted mileage can be inaccurate with Tuweep referred to as Toroweap sometimes.
Fifty-six miles from where we left Route 389, we arrived at the abandoned town of Tuweep, formed in the 1920s in an effort to colonize the Arizona strip. Eight miles further on, soon after crossing the Grand Canyon National Park boundary, we came upon the year-round ranger residence. It is another 6 miles to the edge of the Grand Canyon and the Toroweap Overlook.
We parked here near the edge and piled out with cameras and binoculars for our first breathtaking view into the Colorado River Gorge. This provides a much different view than the better known regions of the North or South Rims to the east.
Here the canyon is less than a mile wide. Toroweap Overlook, at an elevation of 4,600 feet, is on a broad platform called an Esplanade, with the Colorado River clearly flowing 3,000 feet straight below.
We spent the next 30 minutes gaping into the gorge, bounding along the edge, taking photos and discussing geology. We then hiked east on the Saddle Horse Loop Trail as a group along a 1.2-mile trail for a view of Vulcan's Throne, a large cinder cone remnant from a volcanic eruption that occurred about a million years ago. It is located along the Toroweap fault and rests on a sequence of lava flows from more than 60 volcanic cones which fill the valley and created the Uinkaret Mountains.
From here, a trail (of sorts) runs through red obsidian down to Lava Falls on the Colorado River itself. Lava Falls is a remnant from one of the many lava flows occurring about a million years ago after the principal topographic features of the area and the side canyons had been cut to their present levels. These flows obstructed the Colorado River, at one time forming lakes, but they have since been eroded.
Today, Lava Falls remains one of the largest and most dangerous series of rapids on the Colorado River with a 30 foot drop. From where we stood viewing Vulcan's Throne, we could hear the whitewater rapids of Lava Falls 3,000 feet below.
But a brisk wind suddenly came up, and we could see rain heading our way, so we hurried to make camp before we got drenched. Tuweep Campground offers 10 campsites arranged beneath overhangs of Esplanade sandstone. It has picnic tables, and two wonderful, large composting toilets. As we were choosing our sites, the rain began, and by the time we finished pitching our tents, most of us were wet. The Park Service requires an advance reservation permit for camping at Tuweep Campground. We cooked and ate dinner beneath the dripping sandstone ledges. My minestrone soup, sourdough bread and salad with olive oil and feta cheese were especially enjoyable under the soggy circumstances. Just before dark, the rain stopped, and a lovely rainbow formed in the east over the gorge.
Fairly early that evening, I fell asleep shortly after the wine and cocoa ran out and rose at 4:30 AM the following morning. A quick walk over to Toroweap Overlook got me there in time to watch the sunrise over the Colorado River.
I spent the next hour hiking along the rim to the east, then cut cross-country, arriving back at the campgrounds around 7 AM to make breakfast. After granola and coffee, a group of us took another walk to photograph the local plants. When we returned, we broke camp and packed up.
By mid-morning, we caravanned out of the campground, driving back past the park boundary, then headed west on Route 3. We drove through the Mt. Trumbull Wilderness, across Hurricane Ridge and along the western rim of the Colorado Plateau for more than one hundred scenic, bouncing, CB-chattering miles, arriving in St. George, Utah by day's end.
Park Service Upgrade and information
Permits are required for camping and overnight use at Tuweep Campground. Obtain permits up to four months in advance through Grand Canyon National Park's online website at: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm. Permits may be available in person, no more than six days in advance, at Pipe Spring National Monument (14 miles/22.5 km west of Fredonia, AZ) or the Public Lands Information Center in St. George, UT (345 E. Riverside Dr.). Permits cannot be issued at Tuweep.
Nine small campsites are available for one to six people with a maximum of two vehicles,including motorcycles. One large group campsite serves 7–11 people with a maximum of four vehicles, including motorcycles.
The U.S. Park Service has drawn up plans to ensure uncrowded, primitive experiences. They limit day use to a maximum of 30 vehicles or 85 visitors at one time. This total includes visitors at Toroweap Overlook, Tuweep Campground, the Vulcan's Throne area and local trails.
Existing trails will be maintained, including Tuckup Trail, Saddle Horse Loop Trail and access to the Lava Falls Route.
More information from park service on the area you should read before taking this trip.
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