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For our annual New Year's backpacking trip, I took my wife Heather and daughters Hadley, 12, and Abby, 10, on the biggest wilderness adventure we've enjoyed as a family. Starting from Lipan Point in 20 inches of fresh snow, we descended 8 miles and 4,500 feet on the Tanner Trail, reaching a sandy campsite at the Colorado River just after sunset.
On day 2, we dayhiked up-river to Lava Rapids, an easy 8-mile roundtrip on the Beamer Trail that featured a few precipitous cliffside moments that scared the bejesus out of Heather, who suffers from a fairly severe fear of heights. The weather was warm -- 60 in the sun -- and would stay that way all week. (Nights were colder, around 20.)
On day 3, we gave our tired legs a break and hiked only 3 miles, setting up camp just below Unkar overlook. That evening, we hiked a half-mile down-river to the top of the overlook, which offers a sprawling view of the river's many S-curves in both directions. Not a person or raft in sight. (We would see only 4 hikers and a few rafters the entire trip. Winter basically guarantees solitude in the Grand Canyon, especially on the more remote routes.)
Day 4 brought a big, long effort, especially for the kids, who were carrying their own clothes, gear, and some fuel. We covered 8 rugged, often cliffy, very rocky miles on the Escalante Route between Unkar and Hance Rapids. It was the most spectacular day of the trip, with long sections traversing dark red crumbly rock, fields of cacti, shady canyons with two-story icicles hanging from sandstone pourovers, yawning 600-foot-deep chasms with trail tiptoeing along the edge, an entertaining 30-foot-high wall to climb, and a final exhausting rock scramble just above river's edge. On New Year's Eve, we munched a single dark chocolate bar with cherries in celebration, then fell into the tent and fell fast asleep. Not even the ubiquitous river mice woke us.
We'd planned to exit the canyon by climbing the New Hance Trail on day 5, but the volume of snow and difficulty of the trail (the park calls it the most challenging and technical South Rim path) convinced us to go another route. So we shoved off early, climbing quickly to the Tonto Plateau, where we joined the sinuous Tonto Trail for 7 long miles of winding in and out of mid-canyon ravines. Then, just after 1 p.m., we finally hit the turn for Horseshoe Mesa and commenced four hours of steep hiking up past Page Spring, onto the mesa, and then up to the South Rim via the Grandview Trail. The last three hours were in snow -- deep but soft, with no technical sections. At sunrise -- another glorious one -- we crested the rim, deeply satisfied with our 12-mile, 4,500-foot climb and laughing inwardly at the astonished looks of tourists huddled against the cold wind in heavy jackets and scarves.